When Your California Neighbor Injures or Destroys Your Tree
Maintaining your home involves caring not only for the structure but also for the land around the house. Many people take pride in the workmanship they express through landscaping their property. Unfortunately, neighbors do not always respect these efforts. On occasion, neighbors may overstep their boundaries and take action on a neighbor’s landscape that the homeowner did not permit. For those who have faced this situation, or those currently in it, we are here to educate you on your legal rights. In this article, we outline what you can do when a tree on your property is injured or destroyed, as we draw from the book Neighborhood Law by attorneys Emily Doskow and Line Guillen.
Who owns the tree?
When you are confronted with neighborhood conflict, the best way to learn about your rights is to educate yourself and build a case. So, when it comes to under-standing your legal rights regarding your trees (and other landscape), it is imperative to first understand who owns the tree. Before launching an investigation into why a neighbor may have destroyed your tree, confirm that it is legally yours. According to California Civil Code Section 833, “If the trunk of a tree stands wholly on the land of one landowner, that landowner owns the tree regardless of whether its roots, foliage, or branches have grown onto the land of another. However, if the trunk of a tree stands partly on the land of two adjoining landowners, then both landowners own the tree.”
An Owner’s Rights When a Tree Is Damaged
Once you have determined that the tree is legally yours, you can take legal action against your neighbor. This applies if your neighbor has cut down, removed, or hurt your tree without your permission. If so, you have the right to legal compensation and can sue for one of three monetary awards: compensatory (actual) damages, statutory damages, or punitive damages. However, the appropriateness of each option varies depending on the situation. Let’s review.
Compensatory (Actual) Damages
In most cases, homeowners have legal grounds to request compensation for a neighbor’s actual damage. For example, they can ask the neighbor to pay for the cost to replace the tree and the fees associated with removing debris and cleanup. Depending on the age of the tree, this value can vary. A local nursery can often re-place trees that are less than 12 months old. On the other hand, older trees may re-quire the assistance of a landscaping business, and the cost could run up to $20,000. If the damage has impacted the property’s value, a homeowner is entitled to compensation for the depreciation incurred. To understand how much the value has declined, homeowners need to rely on an arborist who can fully assess the damage. Other professionals, such as landscape architects, real estate appraisers, developers, consultants, or horticulturists, can also provide estimates, but their expert opinion may not consider special losses, such as a loss of shelter that has affected utility bills. In addition to property depreciation, homeowners can also be compensated for aesthetic loss and mental anguish. This applies to homeowners who argue that the tree had sentimental value. Although this type of loss is more challenging to determine, homeowners can bring their case to court for a judge to rule on it. Most cases for compensatory damages can be resolved in small claims court. Home-owners with damaged property can sue their neighbor for the actual replacement cost, expert evaluation, and out-of-pocket expenses associated with the lawsuit.
Statutory Damages: Double or Triple Damages
If an individual intentionally damages a neighbor’s tree or landscape, they may be responsible for paying additional compensation to the homeowner. Each state has a different ruling for such incidents. In most cases, however, homeowners can expect compensation of double to triple the damages. In California, a homeowner’s rights are outlined in Cal. Civ. Code § 3346 and Cal. Penal Code § 384a. Doskow and Guillen summarize California statute as follows: “In California … if you intentionally injure or remove timber, trees, or underwood, you are liable for triple the number of actual damages to the owner. If you did not do the damage intentionally or you made a mistake, then the amount owed is twice the compensatory sum.”
For cases where the wrongdoer’s behavior is especially “outrageous, reckless, or malicious,” a homeowner can sue a neighbor for punitive damages incurred by the incident. “Punitive damages are an extra sum of money tacked on to an award in a civil lawsuit as a way of punishing the wrongdoer.” In California, punitive damages are often associated with incidents where wrongdoers are responsible for triple the damages.
In some states, homeowners can press criminal charges against neighbors who destroy or injure their trees. Such wrongdoing is considered a misdemeanor in California, and the wrongdoer can be held responsible and punished by a “fine of not more than $1,000 or a sentence of not more than six months in the county jail or both.”
If you are confronted with a neighborly dispute that involves damage to your property, specifically your trees, you have the right to take action. However, before jumping to a lawsuit, consider taking the following actions to try to resolve the prob-lem:
- Get prepared. Before bringing in a third party, educate yourself on the situation and understand your rights. Get copies of the law and have them ready when requested by your neighbor or participating legal party.
2. Talk to your neighbor. After documenting your loss, present it to your neighbor to see if they are willing to resolve the problem in a friendly manner.
3. Talk to your insurance company. If your neighbor is nonresponsive, open a case with your insurance company. Most homeowners’ policies cover such destruction of property. *Note: If you receive any compensation from your insurance company and later win a case against your neighbor in court that results in additional compensation, you are responsible for paying back the insurance company. Homeowners are not entitled to double payouts in such cases.
4. Call the police. If you believe the neighbor has acted maliciously, we recommend calling the police. This opens a case and may help if the conflict later results in a lawsuit.
5. Consider mediation. When neighborly conversations lead nowhere, con-sider mediation before heading to court. This includes the process of sitting down with a third party to try to resolve the conflict.
6. Sue your neighbor. If communication with your neighbor has failed, your loss is large, or the neighbor’s act was intentional, you may want to consider suing. This opens the door for you to receive compensation based on facts presented to a judge.
A Final Note
Landscape brings value to your property just as much as your home, and protecting your equity should always be your top priority. If you find that any damage has caused uncertainty to your home’s value, take action immediately. The law is on your side, and you have a legal right as a homeowner to protect your assets.