Who is responsible for damage caused by a tree falling from one property on to another? It’s a good question and a common one given Atlanta’s tall trees, shallow soil and frequent thunderstorms (and the occasional ice storm). The question usually comes from a client interested in buying a home where a tree on the neighboring property looms precariously above the home we are looking at. We also get the question after the fact – often following a bad (ice) storm.
In Georgia, liability for damage caused to a neighbor’s property (building, fence, car) by a falling tree centers around the concept of negligence. A property owner has a duty to remove a tree that he knows or reasonably should know poses a threat to a neighboring property. Failing to do so (negligence) may result in liability for damage caused by the falling tree. Without negligence, there is no liability, and the owner is clear.
In determining what a property owner should know regarding the condition of trees on his property, a standard of “reasonable care” is applied. Courts have held the standard to be more or less what a typical homeowner would gather from a visual inspection of the tree – in other words, the standard is not one of a tree expert. A dead or obviously diseased tree leaning precariously toward a neighbor’s house would seem to meet the “should know” standard, prompting a reasonable property owner to take action to remove the hazard. Anything less, however, is not so clear.
If there is a tree on a neighboring property that appears to be a threat to your property, it is wise to put your neighbor on notice of the condition. After a neighborly conversation, follow-up in writing (email is friendlier than a certified letter and creates a lasting record) that you believe that the tree poses a danger to your property and ask that he have the tree removed (or at least inspected by an expert). Even if the owner does not remove the tree, you will have a written record that the owner had knowledge of the dangerous condition, making your case for his liability when the tree comes down on your garage.
It’s important to note that this post applies to fairly narrow situations. For instance, the rules regarding liability are a little different in rural areas. This also does not address situations where the tree itself is on the property line or to limbs from the neighbor’s tree that that cross over the property line.