The Common Law
Who's responsible if a neighbor's overhanging tree is a hazard?
My Neighbor's Overhanging Tree
One of my neighbors drives me nuts. She has a tree that hangs over the property line and into my driveway. The tree looks unhealthy, and I'm worried one of the big branches might fall on my car. I've talked to her about it but she hasn't done anything. Would she be responsible if one of the big branches falls off the tree and damages my car?
Most likely, yes. As the owner of the tree, the law imposes a duty on your neighbor to care for it in a reasonable manner. Property owners who do not act reasonably to prevent damage to a neighbor's property can be considered negligent, which allows them to be held responsible for damages caused by their negligence. As in your situation, when a tree shows signs of weakness or instability, the owner has a duty to correct the problem within a reasonable period of time. The reasonable actions required to correct a dangerous tree depend on the situation and could include anything from simply trimming off a few dead branches to removing the entire tree. Failure to reasonably care for the tree, however, can result in your neighbor being responsible for damage to your car.
On the other hand, just because your neighbor owns the tree does not mean that she will always be responsible for any and all damage it causes. For example, property owners are generally not liable for damages their trees cause due to an act of God. So if your neighbor's tree is healthy and has branches break off during a freak storm, she likely would not be responsible. Keep in mind that this applies if the tree is healthy, which is often a fact-intensive question that is disputed by neighbors after the damage occurs. Your neighbor could still be responsible if the tree showed signs of decay or weakness before the storm such that a reasonable person could have anticipated problems from an unusual weather event.
The situation you described is fairly common among neighbors living in close proximity. As with most neighbor issues, the easiest solution is to keep working with your neighbor in a friendly manner to remedy the issue before it causes damage.
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The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.