Posted by Personal Injury Attorney

So you finally bought your dream home, but your neighbors are a nightmare. Disputes among neighbors are all too common in Southern California – especially along property lines.

Disputes among neighbors account for roughly 45% of misdemeanor charges filed in courts nationwide every year, according to estimates the American Bar Association.

Some of the top categories for these type of complaints are vandalism in the form of pets destroying landscaping or defecating on property, children destroying property or making too much noise, boundary trees and excessive noise in all forms.

Other top complaints range from parking cars and bad odors to “spite fences,” a term used to describe a fence or ugly shrubs and trees erected or planted just to annoy a neighbor.

Tree disputes are the root of many evil battles among homeowners. A neighbor’s tree branches may be hanging over into your property, trees are blocking your view, roots are undermining your block wall, cracking up your driveway and leaves are dropping into your swimming pool.

Sometimes tree roots can cause serious property damage including structural damage, such as damaged roofs or walls, septic tank ruptures, crushed pipes, cracked foundations, and cracked or clogged sewers.

What are the remedies if this happens to you? Can you trim the branches? Can you make them chop down their tree? What are your legal rights?

First of all, the best approach is to try and work things out with your neighbor. If that doesn’t work, there are other approaches that may work.

Trees not only cause property damage, but they can also be dangerous.  Personal injury lawsuits and wrongful death claims have stemmed from falling trees and branches.

In fact, one incident in Costa Mesa last September involved a massive eucalyptus tree that fell on Haeyoon Miller, 29, of Tustin as she was stopped on the roadway awaiting a stop light to turn green. The 50 to 70-foot tree crushed her as she sat in her blue 2002 Hyundai Accent GS. The woman was killed and the city promptly removed all the trees to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

In Jan, 2010, toddler, Mateo Ortiz, was crushed to death by a rotting Maple tree that fell onto his parents truck. His parents, Esmeralda Galan and Jose Ortiz parked in front of a relative’s house in downtown San Jose. Suddenly, a 10-ton maple tree fell onto the top of their truck, trapping Galan, Ortiz and their son, Mateo inside. Mateo was pinned between his two parents in a car seat.

 

Liability for personal injury depends on who is the legal owner of the tree.  Once that is determined, an investigation to determine if there was negligence involved on the owner’s part based on whether the tree was properly maintained or whether the tree owner ignored warnings about the tree’s condition. A personal injury attorney will investigate a tree accident claim to determine if there is wrongdoing on the part of a tree owner.

Defending Your Ocean View

Generally, California homeowners do not have a common law right to a view or light unless a local ordinance has granted it in writing or it’s defined in a subdivision rule.   There are some properties that are subject to a view easement under a view ordinance and courts have ruled that in some cases it’s important to preserve aesthetic value for a homeowner.

Local view ordinances can be found in coastal cities such as Laguna Beach and Del Mar, but the laws can be applied on a case by case basis that some say is subjective.

The courts have also ruled that someone may not deliberately and maliciously block another’s view with a structure or row of trees that has no reasonable use to the owner. Under the “Spite Fence” law, homeowners are prohibited from purposely obstructing the view of a neighbor just to be mean.

Property owners who live in planned developments or communities governed by a homeowners association may be restricted by contractual covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) when it comes to trees and protected views. Sometimes tree foliage can block solar panels and this may be protected under these homeowner rules.

Neighbors upset about trees blocking their view sometimes take matters into their own hands and cut down another homeowner’s trees without permission. Penal Code sections 384a and 622 make it a crime to harm or remove trees or plants on land not your own, which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment in jail up to six months.

Can you Trim a Neighbor’s Tree?  

Billionaire Oracle Corp. Chief Executive Larry Ellison was accused of trimming his neighbor’s trees after they refused to do it themselves. The bitter dispute was over what he thought was his right to a majestic view of San Francisco Bay.

The dispute began after Ellison’s neighbors Bernard and Jane Von Bothmer refused Ellison’s request that they trim their trees. Instead they wanted to maintain the privacy of their three redwoods and an 80-year-old acacia tree even though it blocked the view from one level of the Ellison household. Ellison wanted the trees cut back so he could watch the America’s Cup on that level of his home. He had several other levels with pristine ocean views. He offered the Von Bothmer’s $15 million to buy their home, but they rejected the offer.

The Von Bothmer’s discovered someone had been trimming their 80-year-old acacia tree and the other tallest trees without permission. They claimed that Ellison had instructed his workers to trim the trees, but Ellison denied it. Ellison said his workers on one occasion stood on his retaining wall to cut a limb from one of the trees that was “coming over onto our property” and that he had a right to do so.

The two sides eventually settled out of court, with the Von Bothmers agreeing to make substantial cuts to their trees, including the acacia.

According to California civil code section 3346, the law considers the encroachment of foliage and branches from a neighbor onto your property a nuisance. The law allows you to trim the offending branches and foliage up to the property line carefully and in such a way that the tree is not damaged. You may not destroy the tree itself.

Keep in mind that if trimming branches is done without permission and the tree is damaged, the courts may award the owner of the tree damages of up to three times the damage caused by the cutting. This can be taken down to two times the damage if it can be proved that the wrongful cutting was an honest mistake at the judge’s discretion.

What if a Neighbor Damages your Tree?  

If the tree trimming on your neighbor’s side of the tree doesn’t harm the health of the tree there is nothing you can do because the tree on your side is not damaged.

However, unstable trees that threaten neighboring properties are not protected under the law. If this happens, a neighbor can enter the tree owner’s property to prevent injury from a falling tree.

What is the Value of a Tree?

While you may think a tree has little value, your neighbor may hire an arborist who determines it’s worth $45,000. On the other hand, you may believe that your beautiful 30-foot pine tree is worth $45,000, but the reality is species is fast-growing or it was considered in poor condition and the claim is best suited for small claims court.

No matter value your tree is worth “courts have stressed that only reasonable costs of replacing destroyed trees with identical or substantially similar trees may be recovered.” Hassoldt v Patrick Media Group, Inc. (2000) 84 CA4th 153, 168, citing Heninger v Dunn (1980) 101 CA3d 858, 865.

Code of Civil Procedure section 733 provides mandatory doubling (with certain exceptions) and discretionary trebling of damages for wrongful injury to trees and vegetation. They also provide a five-year statute of limitations.

Some municipalities have tree ordinances that provide special protections for certain trees. These “Heritage tree” ordinances govern the type of trees that can be cut or removed, even by the property owner. Protected trees are often defined by size, age, or species. These laws vary from city to city.  One neighborhood’s majestic redwood can be another community’s most unwanted species.

Some examples include the city of Novato defines a heritage tree as anything larger than 24 inches in diameter (75 inches in circumference) regardless of species.

One the other hand, Pasadena defines significant trees as any variety that is 12 inches or larger in diameter and requires permits to remove them or to trim certain varieties including oak trees, heritage trees and native species including the Coast Redwood, Giant Redwood and several others.

Tree Ownership

According to California civil code section 833, the tree belongs to the neighbor whose property houses the trunk of a tree, even if the roots and branches have grown and invaded the property of another neighbor.

California civil code section 834 states that if the trunk of the tree lies equally on both properties, then both neighbors own the tree.

Tree Wars Sometimes Fall Under the Spite Fence Law

 

In May, 2011, the California court of appeal considered a dispute between neighboring property owners in Carlsbad, California where one homeowner planted a row of trees on the boundary line to block the other’s ocean view.

In Vanderpol v. Starr, the court ruled that under California’s “Spite Fence” law, Civil Code Section 841-14, the row of trees are a structure and subject to the law that prohibits a homeowner from erecting one just to piss off their neighbor and block their view.

However, although the court ruled against the homeowner that planted trees to block another neighbor’s ocean view, that absent a demonstration of injury to their “comfort and enjoyment,” neighboring property owners are not entitled to damages or injunctive relief under the law.

The appeals court reversed an award of $57,000 to the Vanderpols for “lost value of property” because the court said there is no property value loss anymore because they enjoined the Starrs from maintaining their trees at a height greater than 15 feet, 9 inches.

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