The neighbor whose upstairs is now wearing a tree may demand that the tree owner pay for removing it and repairing the damage. However, the owner may not necessarily have legal responsibility for these costs. A person has legal responsibility for another person's damage under two conditions. The first person must:
- Owe the second one a duty to use reasonable care to avoid the damage
- Breach or violate that duty.
If there is no breach of duty, then there is no legal liability.
The tree owner has a duty to his neighbor to take reasonable steps to make sure that the tree is healthy and not inclined to fall over. Most property owners are not experts in the care of plants and trees. However, it would be reasonable to expect a property owner to notice multiple dead branches or limbs starting to crack and fall off. These would be signs of trouble with the tree. If these signs have been apparent for some time, and the owner does not do anything about it, then he is breaching his duty to use care. He would have legal liability if the tree subsequently falls over.
However, suppose the tree shows no outward signs of disease or decay. A violent windstorm uproots it, sending it crashing onto the neighbor's gazebo. Not being an arborist, the owner could not reasonably have been expected to foresee this. Therefore, the owner is not legally liable for the damage.
Fortunately, insurance may help solve either situation. The neighbor who now has the unwelcome tree may have insurance coverage for removing it. For example, a commonly sold Homeowners policy provides a few hundred dollars to remove a tree that has damaged the house or other structure (such as a fence) or that is blocking a driveway or handicapped-accessible ramp. Coverage applies only if a cause from a specific list caused the tree to collapse. Many business property insurance policies provide similar coverage.
Also, if the tree owner is legally liable for the cost of tree removal and property repair, the liability coverage in the Homeowners policy will pick up the costs. This would also be true for a business's liability insurance, if the fallen tree was on a commercial property.
To prevent incidents like these, property owners should keep an eye on their trees. If there are warning signs, experts should be consulted. In extreme cases, it may be best to cut down the trees. Better to do that than to have damaged property and angry neighbors. Discuss your options with a HALO Insurance agent, 314-351-HALO (4256).