If you are a homeowner with trees around your property, you'll find that along with bringing beauty, shade, and perhaps even fruits or flowers, they can bring hassles. For instance, who is responsible when your tree, or a branch from your tree, falls on your neighbor's garage, fence, or shed and causes serious damage?
Trees that might have started out small and manageable have a natural tendency to grow and mature so that, in time, branches might overhang a property line. If the tree, or some of its branches, falls, the result could be severe damage to a house, a car, a boat, or other valuable property. When that happens a few important facts and legal principles govern who's liable to cover the resulting costs. As discussed in this article, the key concerns are:
Before you can determine who is liable for damage caused by a falling tree or branch, you need to know who actually owns the tree.
If the trunk of the tree is on your property, you own it. If the trunk of the tree on your neighbors' property, they own it, no matter how much of the canopy overhangs the property line.
If the trunk of the tree is directly on the property line (a "boundary tree"), both you and your neighbors jointly own it. (See articles on Neighbors and Trees for more on this.)
In most American states, if your tree or any part of it falls on your neighbors' property and causes damage through no fault of your own (due perhaps to a snow storm, winds, hurricane, or other so-called "act of God"), you are not responsible. Your neighbors will have to file a claim with their own property insurer if they want to be reimbursed for their loss.
This will likely come as a surprise to your neighbors! But the key distinction to remember is that you weren't actually at fault.
If, however, the tree that you own, or a branch from it, fell as a result of your negligence, you are legally liable. For example, that principle would apply if an overhanging branch had been dead for years and your neighbors had been complaining about it but you neglected to have it cut down, or if you failed to water it and it died and fell over, or something similar.
If you are liable for the damage caused by your tree falling on your neighbors' property, your neighbors could simply ask you for compensation. You could choose to pay, to avoid further hassle and expense. Or, your neighbors could bring an action against you in small claims or county court seeking reimbursement. There, the judge might order you to pay.
The good news is that the money might not have to come from your own pocket. Check into whether your homeowners' insurance policy covers any amount that your neighbors are owed or awarded.
Some policies will acknowledge coverage for claims only if no negligence was involved; others will cover claims regardless of whether the policyholder has been negligent. Some policies cover only certain kinds of damage (damage to physical structures, for example, but not to the land around it).
Read your policy carefully, then check with your agent. Also, if you want to avoid likely increases in your homeowners' insurance policy premiums, consider simply bearing the cost, or a part of it, if the damage is minimal; for example, the tree merely took out a small section of a plastic fence easily repaired with replacement parts from a "big box" store.
Disputes between neighbors about falling trees or branches are common and unhappily, just as often unnecessary. Check the applicable law in your municipality first, then share your findings with your neighbors. A cooperative approach to the question of damages could save everyone unnecessary time and expense. See, for example, these articles about mediating neighbor disputes.