Trees Grow Up, Trees Fall Down:

Who Is Responsible for Damage When Trees Fall Across Boundary Lines?

Written by Mike Ferrucci, Land Steward and Dave Sargent, President

North Branford Land Conservation Trust, Inc. Edited by David Sargent for general reproduction.

Our trees and woodlands are one defining feature of living in New England. As they grow ever larger and taller, trees provide shade for our homes and yards, habitat for various wildlife, and serve to purify the air we breathe and the water we drink. Some are harvested for their wood for lumber or to fuel our homes or cleared away for our homes and gardens. Or they may be cut to provide “growing space” for other trees as they expand their branches, reaching for more sunlight to sustain their growth.

A young forest starts with thousands of tiny tree seedlings, but as they grow each tree needs ever more growing space. Through a natural thinning process, most of these trees die when quite small, and only a few grow into large trees. Foresters can work with this thinning process to direct the growth of the forest in ways that benefit wildlife and produce useful forest products. When a forest is managed in such a manner the trees grow faster, and often stay healthier longer.

Who Takes Care of the Trees? Trees do not live forever, although some can live for hundreds of years. More commonly, in Connecticut, many of our larger trees can survive to between 100 and 150 years of age. Eventually even those trees that receive the best care from foresters (who work with many trees, in large groups or whole forests) or arborists (who work with individual trees, in yards or along streets) do die. Most trees in our part of Connecticut are not managed by foresters or arborists, and such management is the choice of each landowner.

While active management can bring many benefits, it also has costs. These costs are higher in urban and suburban areas where buildings, power lines, and other man-made objects can be obstacles to the work. Often in more rural areas there are more options for wood disposal, including sawmills which will often pay for the right to cut and remove trees. For these and other reasons most of our trees here in southern Connecticut are left to “nature”.

What Causes Trees to Die? Trees are remarkably resilient, but ultimately even the strongest trees succumb. Over time wood decaying organisms called fungi can weaken roots, branches, and tree trunks. Insects which eat the leaves can weaken the natural ability of the tree to fight off wood decay. Other insects can bore into the part of the tree that moves water and food around the tree. Wind, snow, and/or ice can break branches, adding to the stress on the tree. Vines can strangle the tree while also depriving the leaves of vital sunlight. These various forces can combine in many different ways. The result could be a slow, gradual breakup of a standing tree, branch-by-branch, or a sudden catastrophic break of a huge limb or even an entire tree. Some windstorms are powerful enough to take down an entire grove of trees in a few seconds.

A Tree Has Died. Who has to clean up the mess? What about damage when the tree falls? Generally speaking, our laws classify the damage caused by falling trees or portions of trees as “acts of god”. No blame is assigned in these cases. Any damage is not the fault of the tree’s owner. The fallen tree or part of tree becomes the property of the person whose land it has fallen on, and that person may cut, remove, and use or dispose of that portion that has crossed the boundary line. The costs are borne by the owner of the property where the tree or branches have fallen, or in some cases by the insurance company of the same property owner. The property owner where the tree was growing is not responsible for damages or costs.

There are exceptions of course. For example, if a person cuts the tree down, or causes some injury to the tree that could be expected to damage the tree leading it to fall, then that person has some legal responsibility. So, the tree and/or tree parts are part of the property where acts of nature put them. This is also true when trees or branches which are still alive grow across a boundary line. While it is always best for both parties to work together on a reasonable plan, each can remove the parts of the tree that they own without permission from the other. Finally, if my tree has a few branches that cross into my neighbor’s space I can cut the whole tree on my own, or my neighbor can just cut the branches that cross the line.

The underlying legal concepts derive from common law, based on centuries of English experience that included large tracts of wild forest. It was reasoned then, and still true, that is it unrealistic to expect property owners to care for every tree along every boundary, nor to clean up after natural damages occur. If a landowner believes a tree on a neighbor’s property is a hazard to them or their property, likely their best recourse is to ask the neighbor for permission to correct the hazard – understanding the neighbor is under no legal obligation to grant them permission.

CLCC Workshop Land Trust Law School: Tree & Land Law CT Style

Preented by Atty. Keith Ainsworth