Massachusetts tree cutting law

Court Declines to Cut Down Massachusetts Rule: Neighbor Not Liable for Damage Caused By Healthy Tree

I hope everyone is having a fun and relaxing summer. While you were soaking up the rays down the Cape or enjoying a delicious lobster roll at Woodman’s in Essex, the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court remained busy deciding cases.

A few weeks ago, in Shiel v. Rowell, the Court was asked to overrule centuries-old common law that a landowner may not be held liable for damage caused to a neighbor’s property from a healthy tree. In an opinion interspersed with amusing tree puns, the justices declined to uproot precedent, and reaffirmed the “Massachusetts Rule” that if a healthy tree causes damage to a neighbor’s land, there is no liability. However, the neighbor may prune or remove encroaching branches or roots.

100 Foot Sugar Oak Tree

In the case, Keli-Jo and John Rowell own residential property adjacent to Mary Shiel. On the Rowells’ property sits a 100 foot tall sugar oak tree with branches reaching over Shiel’s property. Shiel filed a complaint with claims of private nuisance and trespass against the Rowells after the tree caused algae buildup on the roof of Shiel’s home and the Rowells refused to cut it down. Shiel sought money damages for the damage to her roof and an injunction demanding that the overhanging branches be cut back. A judge in Quincy District Court dismissed Shiel’s lawsuit, citing the Massachusetts Rule above.

No Reason To Overrule Legal Precedent

The case went up on appeal, with Shiel urging the SJC to adopt the “Hawaii Rule” which allows a neighbor to require the tree owner pay for damage and cut back branches and roots if the tree causes, or there is an imminent danger of it causing, harm to the neighbor’s property. Shiel reasoned that the Massachusetts rule is outdated because today people are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were back in the 1800’s. While the justices acknowledged the recent need for changing other aspects of premises liability (eliminating distinctions between licensees, visitors, trespassers, for example), they saw no drastic change in the Massachusetts landscape to overrule over a hundred years of legal precedent. The law on tree responsibility remains the same today as it was in 1890.

Same Law, Same Questions

Now, the question I get the most from homeowners is what happens if a neighbor’s tree branches or roots are encroaching onto my property and causing damage? The SJC reaffirmed in Shiel that property owners may still legally cut encroaching branches and roots. This is true whether the tree is healthy or diseased. The SJC also restated the rule that a neighbor is always responsible for damage caused by an unhealthy tree regardless of whether it encroaches or not.

Attorney’s Advice: If you are dealing with a dispute regarding trees, especially along the property line, it’s a good idea to consult an attorney. Always get a survey or plot plan performed before you cut any trees. There is a Massachusetts law which provides a “triple damage” penalty for the malicious cutting of trees.

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recy3Triple Damage Penalty for Willful Cutting Of Neighbor’s Trees 

Neighbors typically get really mad when you chop down their trees. Really mad….and it can get the guy with the chainsaw into a lot of legal trouble. Can you say “triple damages”?

First enacted in 1698, the Massachusetts illegal tree cutting law (General Laws chapter 242, section 7) provides for up to triple damages for the malicious cutting, trimming, or destroying of another’s trees:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

That said, I always advise property owners who intend to cut trees near boundary lines to consult a survey or plot plan to ensure that the trees are not on their neighbor’s land.

Measure of Damages: Restoration Cost Value

The measure of damages for those harmed by the willful cutting of trees varies from case to case. The most common measure of damages is either the value of the timber cut, restoration cost, or the resulting diminution in value of the property. A claimant is entitled to assert a claim for either value, whichever is highest.

Where the trees cut are tall, hard to replace or have a particular function like screening, or all the above, it is wise to engage a certified arborist to perform a comprehensive restoration cost analysis. The restoration cost analysis takes into account the aesthetics, functionality, age, height, girth, and species of the trees, and formulates a restoration value for the replacement of the removed trees. The method, known as cost-of-cure, involves determining the cost of planting trees and the estimated time for the replacement trees to grow to the size of the destroyed trees (years to parity).

In recent cases, Land Court judges have awarded $30,000 (tripled) for the cutting of 10 mature oak trees and nearly $45,000 (tripled) for the clearing of an 800 square foot woodland area which provided privacy screening. In both of these cases, expert arborist testimony was offered on the restoration cost of the cut trees. And who can forget the case where a Somerset family recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after a women dropped dead after her neighbor wrongfully cut down a swath of sentimental trees.

Branches Over The Property Line

Under Massachusetts common law, you may remove branches of a neighbor’s tree extending over your property line as long as you don’t kill or damage the tree. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

Lastly, landscapers and tree cutting companies should get a signed directive from the homeowners and an indemnification prior to cutting trees, as my fellow real estate attorney Chris McHallam points out.

If your trees have been wrongfully removed by a neighbor or if you have mistakenly removed trees, you should consult an experienced Massachusetts property law attorney. Valuation of trees is a science, rather complicated, and best left to the professionals.

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Richard D. VetsteinRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who has handled numerous illegal tree cutting and boundary line disputes. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508.620.5352.

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69 Year Old Woman Found Dead After Neighbor’s Handyman Cuts 30-foot Arborvitaes; Estate Recovers $150,000 Wrongful Death Settlement

In a tragic case out of Somerset, Massachusetts reported by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a woman’s estate has recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after she dropped dead when her neighbor cut down a row of trees which she and her husband planted 40 years ago.

According to Taunton lawyer Claudine A. Cloutier, who represented the woman’s estate, the neighbor hired a worker to remove some of the trees. When the woman discovered they had been cut down, she apparently became emotionally distraught. Her son found her dead in a chair the next day. There were no signs of trauma. Her estate brought negligence and tort claims against the neighbor, alleging wrongful death partially caused by stress arising from the destruction of the plants. The case went to mediation, and was settled before trial for $150,000.

Massachusetts Illegal Tree Cutting Law

Disputes over tree pruning and cutting are very common in Massachusetts. Indeed, Massachusetts has one of the oldest tree cutting and trimming laws on the books which provides for triple damages for any illegal cutting:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

Nevertheless, at common law, a neighbor may remove branches extending over a shared property line onto his or her own property. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. You can trim the branches and roots back, but you cannot kill the tree. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Damages are assessed that either the market value of the timber or the replacement cost of the trees. Replacement cost typically requires the assistance of an expert arborist or landscaper. In a case out of Martha’s Vineyard, the appeals court upheld a $30,000 award for the replacement cost of 10 mature oak trees. Upon a finding of maliciousness under the tree cutting law, those damages were tripled.

Before cutting, trimming or pruning trees on or near your property line, it’s always a good idea to consult your plot plan or survey and speak to your neighbor before taking out the chain saws.

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

More ResourcesMassachusetts Law Library

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience real estate attorney who has litigated numerous illegal tree cutting cases. If you are dealing with a Massachusetts unlawful tree cutting or trimming situation, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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