If your neighbor or someone else cuts down, removes, or hurts a tree on your property without your permission, that person is required to compensate you (the tree owner) for your loss. If necessary, you can sue to enforce your rights.
Here's the lowdown on what you must prove to recover for a damaged or destroyed tree, and how much money you can recover. (To learn more about particular situations involving trees and neighbors, see Nolo's Trees and Neighbors FAQ.)
To run afoul of the law, your neighbor doesn't have to chop down your tree. Its enough to just damage the health of your tree. For example, your neighbor has the legal right to trim branches of your tree if they hang over the property line. But if the trimming seriously injures your tree, your neighbor will be liable to you for the damage done. Similarly, if your neighbor uses a chemical in his or her yard to destroy unwanted roots, and the chemical seeps onto your property and kills one of your trees, your neighbor can be liable.
In general, you must meet two requirements in order to have a legal right to compensation for a damaged tree.
Yes. If someone damages or destroys your tree, you can recover for the amount of your actual loss due to the injury or destruction of the tree. This recovery is available even if the damage was caused by an honest mistake. A final dollar figure for actual loss might include:
Some states have specific statutes that provide for additional damages if someone intentionally damages your tree. For example, in Mississippi, if someone deliberately injures your tree, you can sue the violator for an additional amount that is double the amount of your actual damages.
Other states don't have a specific damages statute for intentional harm to trees. However, tree owners in these states might be able to sue for punitive damages (an extra amount over and above actual damages) if the conduct of the person who damaged the tree was especially outrageous or malicious.
If your tree was damaged or destroyed and an insurance company compensated you for part of the loss, you must subtract this amount from any other damage claim (in a lawsuit for example), unless you are required to repay the insurance company.
In most states, deliberately injuring a tree is not a crime. A minority of states do have statutes that make intentional tree damage a crime resulting in a fine or jail sentence. But even if your state doesn't have a specific statute addressing intentional tree damage, a prosecutor could rely on general criminal statutes -- such as those related to theft or property damage -- to bring a criminal prosecution for intentionally harming a tree.
As a practical matter, however, prosecutors rarely go after people who damage trees in residential situations. Criminal prosecution is more likely in scenarios involving the timber industry or the Christmas tree business.
To learn more about laws governing trees on your property, and what to do if your tree is damaged, get Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise, by Emily Doskow and Lina Guillen (Nolo). If you want to consult with a lawyer about tree damage or another type of neighbor dispute, check out Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory, to find an attorney near you.