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Who’s At Fault When Your Tree Blows Into Your Neighbor’s Yard?

Trees in the Rochester New York area have had to stand up to some mighty high winds lately. The weaker ones didn’t fare very well against nature’s fury. That’s what has prompted a significant number of people to ask questions about fault and liability when a neighbor’s tree damages their property and what can be done to prevent the potential for damage.

There’s enough interest in the subject for Rochester’s legal newspaper to run a story, recently, entitled, “Timber! Rights and obligations of landowners and their trees”. It was written by Robert Marks, a law clerk with Boylan Code, LLP.

If you want to read all the case law and legal decisions cited in the story, you can read it Here. I’m more interested in how you can minimize the chance of one of your trees causing damage to your neighbor’s yard.

Your trees are your responsibility. If they damage your neighbor’s property, you may be financially responsible. Mr. Marks writes that the tree owner needs to have “actual or constructive” knowledge of the tree’s condition in order to be responsible. How can a tree owner know that a tree has structural problems? By having it inspected by a certified arborist. Why would you want to spend money to protect your neighbor’s property? Depending on wind direction, the failed tree could damage your property instead of the neighbor’s.

Suppose your neighbor’s tree is hanging over your yard, dropping debris on your pool or lawn. Or it’s so dense it blocks sunlight and your grass won’t grow. You are within your rights to trim the tree back to the lot line, as long as you don’t do anything that will put the tree’s life in jeopardy. However, you can’t go on to your neighbor’s property to do any trimming.

Do-it-yourself remedies may be satisfying to you but also dangerous – both physically and legally. Physically because you may get hurt doing the trimming, legally because you may inadvertently land in trouble with the law. My advice is to try to work out your differences with your neighbor, possibly splitting the cost to have it trimmed to your mutual satisfaction. If that doesn’t work, have us trim back the overhang on your side. We’ll do it professionally and legally.

If the offending tree is on the lot line, a whole different set of rules apply. A lot line tree is owned by both neighbors, regardless of who planted it, and both have to agree on any maintenance procedures. This is also the case for a tree that one of you planted on your side of the line that has now grown to straddle the line.

So, the short answer to the title question is that old stand-by – It depends. You have legal, ethical, safety and aesthetic questions that need to be answered first.

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One comment on “Who’s At Fault When Your Tree Blows Into Your Neighbor’s Yard?

  1. Yes, I remember that trees can be cut back to the property line, but what some neighbors of clients to not keep in mind is that they can not damage the tree in the process. I have worked most recently with two silver maples and a red maple that were ruined by such pruning. The red maple was a sad case because it had been such an exemplary specimen.

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