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When A Tree Falls, Who’s Liable?

Storm damage - a fallen tree.

As many of us have seen or experienced first-hand following Tropical Storm Isaias, downed trees can cause considerable devastation, and the cost of repairs can be expensive—especially when the damaged property is not covered by insurance.

When the tree is located on your property, it’s clearly your responsibility to pay for any needed repairs. But what happens when it’s a neighbor’s tree? Is the neighbor responsible for the damage? Does it matter if the tree was dead or diseased before it fell down? And what happens if a tree falls and injures a passing pedestrian or motorist, is anyone responsible in that circumstance?

Surprisingly, when it comes to falling trees, the law in Connecticut is not that clear.

Over the past decade, the Connecticut General Assembly has attempted on several occasions to pass legislation that would render a landowner, under certain conditions, legally responsible for damage caused to neighboring property by a fallen tree or limb.

Many of these bills did not make it out of committee due to concerns that the laws would be difficult to enforce or too costly for residents to follow. In 2014, the house and senate both passed a bill that would have required a landowner to remove a tree when a neighbor complained that the tree was dead, diseased or likely to fall. However, the bill was vetoed by Governor Malloy, who expressed concern that the law was “weighted too heavily in favor of neighbors who want branches or trees taken down,” and that it could cause some landowners to remove otherwise healthy trees out of fear of future liability. Following the former Governor’s veto, the legislature sought to improve upon the proposed law by adding requirements that the tree be inspected by a licensed arborist prior to removal or that the landowner have a means of challenging a neighbor’s claim that a tree required removal. However, none of these bills made it back to the Governor’s desk.

In the absence of legislative action, Connecticut judges continue to follow a traditional rule that can be traced back to the early English and American courts, when much of land was undeveloped and rural.

The rule provides that a landowner has no legal obligation to inspect for dead, dying or dangerous trees and, thus, cannot be held financially responsible for any damage that such trees may cause when they fall down. But the law is slightly different when it comes to trees that fall and injure people. In those circumstances, the landowner has an obligation to prevent “unreasonable risk of harm” arising from “natural conditions” on his land. In ordinary language, this means that a landowner can be held responsible when a tree falls and injures a passing pedestrian or motorist, provided the landowner knew, or should have known, about the dead, dying or dangerous tree before it fell.

It is also worth noting that the state and local municipalities are required to inspect for dead and dangerous trees through a public official known as the tree warden. The tree warden is tasked with determining whether trees located on public lands should be removed or trimmed. However, if a tree located on public lands falls and causes damage or injuries, it is unlikely that the town or state will be held liable. Like most public officials, tree wardens are protected by governmental immunity and can only be held legally responsible under a limited set of circumstances.

So what can you do if your neighbor has a dead or diseased tree that presents an obvious danger to you or others?

The best solution is to simply ask him to cut it down, or if you are feeling altruistic, offer to pay to have it cut down. One thing you should not do is take matters into your own hands. In Connecticut, cutting down a neighbor’s tree without permission can expose you to severe civil fines and penalties, as well as criminal trespass. However, you are generally permitted to trim or remove any roots or branches that encroach from a neighboring tree onto your property.

Written by: Attorney Ryan Sullivan

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