If A Tree Falls…

A good friend and native Westporter — who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous — writes:

A tree on my property falls on yours.

Who is legally and morally responsible for the cleanup and costs of removal, property damage if any,  etc.? I realize there might be 2 different answers.

I am sure it happened a lot early Thursday morning, and many in the area are trying to figure it out.

Mark Mathias' tree landed on his own lawn Thursday morning. But what if his tree fell on his neighbor's property? Or vice versa?

Mark Mathias’ tree landed on his own lawn Thursday morning. But what if his tree fell on his neighbor’s property? Or vice versa?

A neighbor’s 35-foot evergreen fell on our property. It missed our house. But the neighbor refused to pay for the cost of removal of any tree “stuff” on our property, as their insurance company  says falling trees are an act of God. (What if I am an aethiest?)  What does an insurance policy have to do with what is the right thing to do?

Our neighbor’s tree service cut the trunk to the point where it crossed over the property line, and no further.

We paid $400 to remove it from our property. This is less about the money, but about the principle.

And what does all this say for neighborly relations?

Good questions, all. Readers, hit “Comments” to reply. Please, keep the discussion civil and sane.

36 responses to “If A Tree Falls…

  1. Wow! $400! As the writer puts it “do the right thing” or hell at least offer to split the cost!

  2. If you do pay your neighbor for tree with roots in your property because it fell into their yard & clean up is on their property then they can expect you will also pay them to clean up the leaves that blow from your trees into their yard every autumn.

  3. I have been cleaning up fallen trees for clients for 35 years. It’s rare when the owner of the tree pays for the neighbor”s clean-up. I don’t believe they are obligated to pay. After Sandy, we did a job where trees fell from the neighbor and it was over $4000. I try to talk to neighbors whenever we work near a property line because Westporters are so litigious and property lines are usually unmarked.
    I believe if you notify a neighbor in writing of an unsafe tree then you have some recourse.

  4. Ah, a debate that has been going on since Noah accidentally felled a neighbor’s tree while building the ark. But I’m more intrigued by the accidental creation of a new word, “Aetheist.” Is that a person with great taste who doesn’t believe in god? Or a person who works for an insurance company who doesn’t?

  5. U. Zooelly N. Trouble

    If the tree is mine and it falls on my property, am I legally obligated to clean it up? Who pays for it?

  6. “Morally,” neighbors should talk with each other and perhaps offer to pay half or come to some kind of feasible monetary arrangement if this occurs. “Legally,” I believe your homeowners insurance covers the clean up of the tree on your property-check your policy…at that time, maybe a neighborly conversation about covering a deductible?? In the future, people may want to keep a close eye on trees close to their property line and if one looks sickly or poses a risk of injury if it ever fell, get it in writing (certified, etc) and notify the neightbor before the fact. That can go a long way in providing recourse as Brad states above.
    Bottom line, neighbors should be just that, neighbors, and look out for each other’s interest. In the end, that just naturally benefits everyone. Wishful thinking, I know.

  7. When our tree fell in our neighbor’s property, we paid for the cleanup and the cost of their new clothesline. We were living in Stratford at the time. We knew the tree needed attention, but we hadn’t gotten around to it. Interestingly, when we asked our neighbor’s son, who had his own landscaping business, how much he would charge us to clean it up, he gave us a price we considered too high. Hence, we brought in someone else for a lower price to clean up his dad’s property.

    More recently, a tree on our property fell across our neighbor’s driveway. We paid to clean that up too. In that case, there was no indication that the tree was about to tip.

  8. I’m not a lawyer or town official. But my tree company informed me that whatever happens on your property tree-wise is your own responsibility, even if came from a tree rooted elsewhere. An exception is if you warn the neighbor, in advance and in writing, of your concern, which is a way of suggesting you’ll hold them liable for damage. A neighbor called me after the last storm to tell me they were worried about some trees from my yard leaning over theirs. That’s a different story. Why wouldn’t I want to prevent damage or possible harm to my neigbor (or anyone else)? I had them taken care of that same day and paid for it. If it cost your reader only $400 he/she should consider herself lucky. My neighbor’s call resulted in $4,000 bill to me for tree removal and cleanup. I still came out better than my friends at the beach, though; I got to stay in my home.

  9. Informed our neighbors of a very large precarious tree on their property before Sandy. It could potentially do major damage to our house. Within days they had the tree completely removed, at their expense. Do into others…
    I

  10. We had a tree fall on our neighbors property and had a call from the neighbor within 12 hours of the tree falling asking us “when we were going to have it removed” We decided to do the “right thing” and pay for removal. I called the tree company , they turned up and then left looking like the job wasn’t finished. I called the tree company to find out why they had not finished the job. I was told the owner of the property the tree fell on wanted to save the trunk for his firewood. The neighbor had our tree man cut the pieces and stack them then leaving several large uncut chunks of wood by our fence which is very visible and unattractive. This was over a year ago and those pieces are still there and he has lots of very nice firewood for himself that we payed for . So much for being the good neighbor !!

  11. U. Zooelly N. Trouble

    Everybody knows that you blame the other guy and if necessary threaten to sue him. But what do you do when the tree is yours and it falls on your property? Isn’t there someone in the government that will pay for the cleanup? Surely you don’t expect people to clean up after themselves, do you??? And BTW, don’t call me Shirley!!!!

  12. Westporter with no trees left

    Legally, whatever fell onto your property, (even is the roots and trunk are on your neighbors property) you are responsible to pay for clean-up and removal. This has happened to me numerous times– my fence even got damaged from my neighbor’s tree, and it was mine to repair and pay for. The law is pretty clear about this. And yes, $400.00 is very cheap. Depending on the size of the tree- It can cost in the thousands to have a tree removed. Furthermore. the insurance company will probably only pay if there was structural damage to house or fence. If a tree falls, and hits nothing– except blocks a path in your garden, insurance typically does not pay for removal. It has cost me thousands over the past few years–having trees removed, some from my property that fell over onto my property, some from my neighbors property that fell into mine.

  13. I am very familiar with this law and yes, Jessica Bram is correct. Unless you had expressed your concern about a particular tree to the neighbor in question prior to it falling on your property, you will not have a leg to stand on in court.

    Per the state laws of practically every state I know, they will hold you responsible for clean up every time. Unless, as I said before, you showed concern and can prove as much in court.

    Of course, this doesn’t address the problem of being friendly and “neighborly.” That concept is missed on most in 2013. But the courts cannot help you with that!

  14. I faced this with both neighbors on either side of my property. One had an unhealthy tree that threatened to fall on my property. They agreed to let me chop down their tree but legally I had to pay for it (they got to keep the wood since it was their tree). During Sandy the other neighbor’s healthy non threatening tree cracked in half and, you guessed it, fell on my property and d

  15. Did lots of damage to my property (though fortunately not my house). Legally I am also responsible for the cost of the repairs. Dan, condo life is looking more appealing!!

  16. If the tree is dead, it is the responsibility of the property owner where the tree was rooted. If the tree is alive and the neighbor won’t do anything, it’s a lawsuit. If the tree teeters over a brook or stream and the dept. of conservation needs to be consulted, it’s still your problem. Unless the tree falls into the water and impedes the flow and floods your property, then it’s … still your problem.

  17. Quandary: After Sandy: two trees toppled over on the border of the property, both broke about 5 feet high but not separated, one resting on partial trees they took down, two properties over, while the other, still suspended took out the far neighbors fence. That neighbor had their tree guy cut off the offending tree to the property line and made the repairs to their deer fence. The other tree, still semi attached to the trunk rests about 15 feet high, into other trees. The removal quote is in the thousands, as a crane would be needed.

    On another note: many people find out after the tree falls onto a house, that insurance does not pay for the tree removal on the insured building.

    • Correct. Because it is considered an act of God by the insurance company. That’s life.

  18. The law is clear you clean up your property, neighbor cleans up his, regardless of whose tree it is. We have been through this 4 times in the last 2 years.
    Jim Graves

  19. I had a neighbor’s tree fall on to my property and asked her if she would pay to have it removed. She felt I had a nerve to ask her. She has three other very tall pines that could hit my house or her house. I asked her if she had considered having these tree removed before they fell and she laughed and said she hoped that when they fell they went in my directions and hit my house. Her reasoning being that I had crossed the line by reqesting the removal of the tree that did fall in my yard. How can one work with a neighbor with this kind of resoning, I wonder how she would of felt had it been my tree in her yard.

    • Write her a letter informing her of the hazardous conditions created by her trees. Have your lawyer draft the letter.

  20. Some information I refresh, from time to time, for myself and others (who were not old enough to have any memory of that storm, concerns the Hurricane of 1938. I was 14 and a witness to the damage inflicted in Northern New Jersey, it was not very severe, but memorable.

    History, readily avaiable on the internet, states that some two-thirds of the trees in New England were blown down. That fraction is converted to 2 Billion trees That being true, it would seem to indicate that about 1 billion surviving trees have aged to something over 75 years, at the least. Photos of trains blown from their tracks and boats blown ashore are sobering. Many lives were lost along with houses destroyed in the path of that event.

    That storm was a virtually unrecognized treat untill it slammed across Long Island into Rhode Island, Its ” eye” travelled up Narragansett Bay, dealing a terrible blow to Providence, as the storm went North through New England to Canada.

    With today’s warning systems we can be somewhat confident that that surprise will not be repeated. As to the destruction in a storm of equal intensity today, the damage will be far, far greater.

  21. If a tree falls...

    I was surprised at the answer to this situation, but learned from experience.
    During the big March storm a couple of years ago a neighbor’s tree fell on our property and damaged two cars and minor damage to the house.
    In this case since the tree was diseased, his insurance company took care of it (Travelers) without delay.
    During Sandy another neighbor’s tree came down on our property causing damage (deck and landscaping, including a large Japanese Maple).
    In this case, even though the tree was dead or dying his insurance wouldn’t cover it and neither would mine (Allstate). However, when I told him about it he offered to clean it up, but not repair the damage.
    A footnote to this – I had a dead tree on our property line removed two weeks before Sandy and my professional tree guy told him his trees were dead and dangerous, but didn’t do anything since they are closer to my house then his.
    I told my insurance agent this (Allstate) and they said if I send a registered letter notifying him in writing then I would be covered next time.

    • If a tree falls...

      BTW – Brad was my tree guy and did a great job at a good price.
      He was recommended to me by another Westporter.

  22. This reads like a suburban nightmare. I’m sure there is a Twilight Zone episode that parallels/speaks to where this fear of falling trees could go, i.e., everyone with a neighbor (that is everyone) warning the latter about trees, which ends up being every one in town and every tree posing a potential threat. It’s the difference between country and suburbs.

    • You are kidding right? This is Westport; we live to litigate. If you want friendly neighbors who will help when their trees fall on your house; don’t look here.

      • Sad but very true.

      • Neighborhoods should consider going private so that becoming a neighbor isn’t accessible simply by obtaining a mortgage. It sounds peculiar but it could minimize this problem.

        • Good idea, but if your neighbor won’t help clean up when one of their tees falls and damages your property, why would they agree to having the neighborhood go private?

      • On the contrary, I alerted my neighbor to some diseased limbs on a maple. He called in an arborist for pruning, and when a healthy limb came down on our property line fence, he cleaned up the limb, and I repaired the fence.

        Trees are a valuable asset and we all benefit when they’re well cared for.

  23. U. Zooelly N. Trouble

    Is this heaven? No, it’s Westport!!!

  24. I would cut up any parts of my neigbor’s tree that fell in my yard (I have a chain saw) and huck it back into their yard.

    It’s their tree…..they might as well have the wood…….

  25. Brother, Neighbor, Lawyer

    Fascinating discussion.

    (1) I stopped at my sister’s to bring in the mail & water plants on Friday and noted several trees and large limbs blown down overnight. When I called to convey the news, my brother-in-law and sister asked questions to determine if there was any damage to house or other plantings (both no), or if the tress had fallen onto any neighbors’ yards (also no). Satisfied that the damage was confined to open parts of their yard, they said they’d deal with it when they returned home from vacation. It was pretty clear that they’d have cleaned the neighboring yard if the trees had fallen away from theirs.

    Surprising? Maybe not.

    After Sandy where I was staying, a very large branch from a neighbor’s tree had crushed the dividing fencing and rested on the garage roof. The neighbor immediately left an note that he’d take care of it. All that currently remains is some fence repair. The wood from his tree was cut in fireplace-sized logs and stacked (where too small to require splitting) for seasoning next to the garage, which itself did not require repair.

    Then again, I once successfully defended a small claims action against an elderly client whose tree had fallen onto the neighbor’s yard and given rise to his $5,000 demand. Harmful to the plaintiff’s cause was his having upset the wetlands border between the two houses with improper landfill in attempts to have a manicured lawn where a swampy habitat was clearly nature’s way. His actions had made the roots structures of my client’s trees less stable. The court had no interest in rewarding the plaintiff.

  26. Unfortunately this is very common and I’m finding there is little recourse. During Sandy, a 130-foot tree fell from our neighbor’s property across our lawn, causing over $8,000.00 worth of damage (and luckily no injuries). We knew our neighbors were not responsible financially, but we did ask that they 1). allow us to park the wood chipper in their service driveway for one day since our accessibility to the tree was very difficult; and 2). take down the remaining rotten trees on their property that lean toward ours. They refused on both accounts. Last week, two of their trees fell onto another neighbor’s property, crashing through their roof. Although the law may not be on our side, I wish that common decency and concern for the well-being of others was enough to prevent this from continuing.

    • ” allow us to park the wood chipper in their service driveway for one day since our accessibility to the tree was very difficult; ”

      Wow!

      Your neighbors are complete douches for not at least letting your tree people use their driveway.

      Taking down the rotten trees I can see them passing on….it is very expensie.

  27. I have read most of the comments to this post but have a little different situation of my own. I live on the lake and share about a 50 yard “slew” with other neighbors that leads to the main body of water. Recently my next door neighbors large oak tree fell into the water. The tree was very close to my property line but about 5 foot technically on his property line. The tree fell straight down the middle of the property line into the slew blocking about 1/3 of the slew. It damaged my lakefront walkway but due to the size of the tree it also landed on his property. I don’t care about the damaged walkway and my deductible is too high to get my insurance involved, but who is at fault to clean the tree out of the water? For all I care the tree can stay in the water I just don’t want to be liable in any way for someone sueing for the blocked water way or hit the tree and sue. In this circumstance I look at it as when someone’s tree falls in the road. They should be liable to remove the tree right?