You’re sitting at home one stormy night and you hear a crack of lightning – followed by a crash. You run to the window and see that your neighbor’s old oak tree that grew in their side yard is no longer in their side yard – it’s now in your side yard, and has crushed your deck. Who is to blame: your neighbor, or the storm? As attorneys are fond of saying, the answer is “it depends.”
In the past, the law in Pennsylvania treated trees and tree limbs as “natural conditions” of a property, and the owner of a tree was not liable for damage caused by a tree unless the damage occurred with the aid of human activity. This meant that the owner of a tree that fell onto a neighboring property because the tree was dead or diseased would not be liable for any damage the tree caused.
This approach partially changed as the countryside developed into suburban communities, and properties became smaller. In 1975, the Pennsylvania Superior Court declared that the owner of land in or adjacent to a “developed or residential area” is liable for damage caused by a tree on their property if they knew, or should have known, that a defect in the tree posed an unreasonable danger to persons or property outside their land and the damage occurred as a result of their failure to remedy the dangerous defect. The Court articulated a two-part duty of “reasonable care” on property owners to (1) learn of defective conditions in their trees and (2) remedy the condition by treating or removing the tree, or otherwise acting to remedy the danger posed by the condition.
Let’s break down that two-part duty, beginning with geographic areas where it applies to property owners. Courts have not defined what counts as a “developed or residential area”. However, they have stated that the focus is not on the property from which the tree fell, but instead on the property that was damaged by the falling tree. For example, the owner of a large, heavily wooded property which is located in an agricultural area but which has defective trees on the border of a dense residential area would likely be subject to the “reasonable care” standard described above.
Now let’s break down the two elements of a property owner’s duty. First, what must a property owner do to demonstrate “reasonable care” in learning of any defective conditions in their trees? Pennsylvania courts have held that, at a minimum, this requires owners to visually inspect the tree. Depending on the circumstances, however, owners may also have to take additional steps to learn of any defective conditions. The duty to address a defect entails whatever is sufficient under the circumstances to address the danger posed by the defect. In practice, property owners should periodically perform visual inspections of any trees on their property large enough to cause damage to other properties or persons. If an owner finds any signs of defects in a tree – or even if an apparently healthy-looking tree could cause damage to neighboring properties if it falls – the owner should consult a certified arborist to perform a detailed inspection and proposal for any necessary remediation. This will allow an owner to properly perform the second part of their legal duty: remedying the danger posed by the defect. Where the arborist’s recommended remediation entails removal of a limb or the entire tree, owners must take care not to perform the removal in a manner that causes injury to neighboring properties.
In addition to the common law duty described above, Pennsylvania property owners may face municipal regulations concerning the cutting or removal of trees. For example, all First Class Townships and Second Class Townships have the express authority to require property owners to trim or remove trees – diseased or otherwise – if the trees could obstruct the use of public roads or public property or otherwise effect public health, safety, or welfare. These municipal regulations most often apply where a municipality determines that a tree is blocking the vision of motorists at an intersection or where a defective tree could fall into a public right-of-way. An attorney who specializes in land use law will be able to advise a property owner who receives notice from their municipality about enforcement of these types of regulations.
Property owners involved in tree-related disputes or have questions about liability for damage caused by a tree should contact an attorney with experience in these matters. You may contact Matthew McKeon at [email protected], or by telephone at 610-840-0225. This article provides a general overview of the law. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation.