The Root of the Matter
With all of the recent weather that’s stormed through Springfield, I can’t help but notice piles of downed trees and limbs throughout my neighborhood. Indeed, the City even decided to extend the free branch pick up due to recent storms. But have you ever stopped to wonder about the legal implications if your tree falls on your neighbor’s house? Or when the limbs of a neighbor’s tree become a nuisance in your own yard? If you haven’t, now’s the time to find out – and then some.
Let’s first talk about who owns a tree. A tree is owned by whoever owns the location where the tree trunk exits the ground. This holds true even if the vast majority of the tree’s canopy extends into neighboring property. And it also holds true even if most of the roots are located on adjoining property and draw water and nourishment from that property.
Just because you own a tree doesn’t mean that you have complete and unfettered control of the tree. If your tree’s branches and limbs extend over adjoining property, that property owner has the right to prune the branches (and roots) right up to the property line. It’s a little bit like joint custody. But at least you, as the tree’s owner, can’t be forced to pay the pruning expenses. The only exception to a neighbor’s right to prune up to the property line is when that pruning will cause “serious harm” to the tree. So if trimming the roots would cause the tree to die (or fall over), that conduct would be prohibited. It’s a very fact-specific determination. The well advised owner should check with his or her insurance agent before engaging in any aggressive tree or root trimming to make sure that there’s coverage.
Just like in most other areas of the law, with ownership comes responsibility. So if a tree trunk exits the ground on your property, you are now responsible for maintaining that tree. And under certain circumstances, you can be held liable for damage caused by the tree.
In our rural and agrarian past, property owners were immune from liability for property conditions of “purely natural origin, such as a tree.” But, as Illinois became a more urban setting, the law began to recognize that it was no longer very much of a burden for a small property owner to inspect his or her property in order to take reasonable precautions against dangerous natural conditions such as dead limbs or dying trees. Said another way, the typical home owner is charged with taking reasonable steps to inspect trees and to trim dead branches, or even to take down a dying tree that might fall on a neighbor’s house.
When deciding issues of liability, the courts look at the nature of the property and locality (e.g. urban or rural), the seriousness of the danger, and the ease or difficulty of fixing the problem. For example, a single dead branch that could be easily cut down in the Washington Park area may create more liability than one dead tree out of hundreds on a many-acre parcel of land.
If you’re really paying attention, you should be wondering how you might maintain a tree when a substantial portion is accessible only from adjoining property. Well, the law says that a tree owner may enter adjoining property to fix a dangerous condition – such as removing an obviously dead branch.
What if you’re a neighbor and you spy a dead branch hanging over your breakfast room? Then you’d be well advised to notify your neighbor (perhaps even in writing) so as to put him or her on notice of the condition.
What if your neighbor doesn’t do anything to remedy the situation? Then you’re entitled to self-help – certainly up to the property line and perhaps even past the property line if necessary for safety reasons. As with some many situations in the law, the standard is generally one of reasonableness – if there’s imminent harm of a tree or limb falling, it’s more likely that you can enter your neighbor’s property to fix the problem. If the danger is remote, then it’s much less likely that you can take such action.
However, keep in mind that if you are found to have intentionally damaged a tree without justification, you can be held liable for triple damages. Damages for most decorative trees may not cover the actual value for a mature substitute tree, but should be enough for a reasonable substitute with some money left over. So act wisely before taking potentially rash action. The same rules apply if someone (perhaps a negligent driver who plows into your yard) damages one of your own trees.
What about trees located in right of ways or easements granted utilities and the aggressive trimming and pruning sometimes engaged in by those utilities? First, under most circumstances you’re entitled to some notice by the utility. Second, the trimming has to conform to certain standards – but those standards are fairly generous and, in general, authorize what most of us would view as heavy-handed pruning. So there’s not much you can do.
As far as trees not within an easement or right of way, it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to trim them so that they don’t interfere with power or phone lines.
Trees, then, can be the subject of a myriad of legal issues. Coupled with potential bad relations between neighbors, there’s lots of fodder for a fight. And the best way to avoid those fights is to act reasonably and to know the law (which you now do) and act accordingly.