Responsibility for fallen trees is in the details

Posted: February 18, 2014

The tree that stood across the street from the Edkinses' house came crashing into their Radnor yard during the ice storm.

The power went out. They got a generator, and the Edkinses prepared themselves for the days ahead. Responsibility for the tree, luckily, was not an issue.

"We talked to [our neighbors] ahead of time, and we said that since it was shared . . . we would just split" any cost of removal, said Christine Edkins. "When it happened, everybody came out, because everyone is so close."

The Edkinses called local tree services and learned the cleanup would cost at least $700. A township crew came by, though, and did most of the cutting to open up the road, leaving behind a much smaller pile of tree debris to clean up.

"I imagine it could have been $1,000-plus," Edkins said. "We were very, very fortunate that [the tree] didn't hit the house."

Nearby the Edkinses' home, a different set of neighbors was brought together against their will.

"Yeah," said a woman on Beechtree Lane, who was concerned about offending a neighbor and declined to give her name.

She indicated that she would pay for removal if one of her trees fell on a neighbor's property. During the storm, her neighbor's tree fell across the street onto her driveway.

"I'm sure he will, too," the woman said. "We just haven't had the chance to talk about it."

Neighbors tend to be civil in these situations, said Rick Crecraft, who has worked in tree removal for the last 42 years in Wayne. He said he could not recall any major disputes when trees fall over.

Act of God

But who would have technically been responsible for the tree that cracked across the street from the Edkins home?

The answer can be as clear-cut - or not - as the tree.

Common understanding of the issue revolves around an "act of God" defense. In a situation in which the original owner of the tree was in no way negligent, the responsibility to clean up falls on the party who had the tree fall on their lawn or house.

That tree fell by the grace of God, and there is nothing anyone could have done about it.

"Just because a tree falls doesn't make the owner of the tree responsible," said Jerry Hanson, an attorney with Hill Wallack in Princeton. "The question is: Should the owner of the tree have known? Should they have been aware that there was a risk of their tree falling? Had they done any maintenance? How old was the tree? Had they had three other trees that have also fallen?

"The more evidence of a probability that something bad [was] going to happen, then the more responsibility it would be."

In a court of law, the devil is in the details. And you are likely to forget some of the details, according to Nathan Schadler, an attorney with Lance Rogers & Associates in Ardmore.

For instance, a tree can trespass.

"Let me say that you have a tree growing in your yard, and it grows into your neighbor's yard," Schadler said. "The tree that is growing is a little bit on your property and a little bit on the person's property next to you. Any damage is liable to the person whose property the tree is growing on.

"The courts have said it's a trespass, a civil trespass."

A branch crossing the property line could put responsibility back onto the owner of the property where the tree was growing.

Talk to your neighbor

The best thing to do, Schadler said, is make sure you understand what your homeowner's insurance policy covers and talk with your neighbor before the tree falls.

"Be conscious of what is on your property," Schadler said. "If you have a tree that's growing over towards your neighbor's property, take care of it, or at least talk to your neighbors.

"If you are looking out your window and you're saying, 'I'm surprised that tree made it through the storm,' you ought to be dealing with it now."

After all, just like a lawsuit, the outcome of the next storm can be unpredictable.

"I just don't want people to say, 'Oh, I'm not negligent,' and then the next thing you know, you have a tree going through the neighbor's window," Schadler said. "Each case is unique. I cannot stress enough that it certainly is a costly procedure. But this is a time when common sense counts above the letter of the law.

"What I would advise anyone before they pursue litigation is to talk to your neighbor."


cmindock@phillynews.com@clarkmindock

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