Massachusetts tree law

SJC Declines To Uproot Law On Tree Responsibility

by Rich Vetstein on July 30, 2018

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 Shiel reasoned that the Massachusetts rule is outdated because today people are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were back in the 1800’s. While the justices acknowledged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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Tree down in Andover, Mass. Courtesy Boston.com

Read our post on Hurricane Sandy Aftermath Here

Massachusetts Fallen Tree Law

Given all the trees and branches which fell across New England, the pressing question of the day is, clearly, who is responsible if my neighbor’s tree or tree branch fell on my house, car, shed, patio, grill, etc. during the storm?

The short answer is that, legally speaking, your neighbor is not liable for a healthy tree falling down during a major storm event. That is considered an “Act of God” for which no one is legally liable (except God of course, but I think he enjoys some type of legal immunity–I’m not sure, I’ll have to research that one). So, you will have to make a claim under your homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage caused by the neighbor’s tree.

As the court stated in the 1983 case of Ponte v. DaSilva:

The failure of a landowner to prevent the blowing or dropping of leaves, branches, and sap from a healthy tree onto a neighbor’s property is not unreasonable and cannot be the basis of a finding of negligence or private nuisance. Of course, a neighbor has the right to remove so much of the tree as overhangs his property. To impose liability for injuries sustained as a result of debris from a healthy tree on property adjoining the site of the accident would be to ignore reality, and would be unworkable. No case has been brought to our attention in which liability has been imposed in such circumstances

On the other hand, if the neighbor’s tree was diseased or decayed, was known to be at risk of falling and the neighbor ignored it, there could be negligence and liability. Either way, if you have homeowner’s insurance, the insurance companies will sort out fault and blame.

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