Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Look Down before Chopping Down a Tree!

Here is an important, and in this case, costly, rule about trees in California. If the tree has any portion of the trunk on your neighbor's property, you may not remove it or damage it without permission. It is a jointly owned and you can be out a bundle for not looking DOWN as well as up to see where the trunk comes out of the ground.
Reprinted from a legal website in Los Angeles, 2012.

In a most interesting case published by the California Court of Appeal on August 29, 2012, the Court determined that a neighbor who cut down a single 70 foot tall Aleppo Pine tree straddling the boundary line between two properties was liable to the adjacent owner for $107,256.00!
The facts of the Kallis vs. Sones decision are straightforward.  Kallis bought his Los Angeles property in 1955.  His next door neighbor, Sones, purchased his lot in 1977.

The Pine tree likely started growing on one side of the line or the other, the expert witnesses believed.  Over the years, however, as the tree grew and the trunk widened, the tree’s trunk came to straddle the line.  Nothing unusual there.

What made the tree abnormal is that a few feet up from its base, the trunk split into two separate, but still large trunks.  One of those trunks grew over the Kallis property and the other grew over the Sones property.   Each trunk supported a fully developed system of branches and limbs above it.
The secondary trunks were distinct and far enough apart even at their bases to allow room for a metal property line fence to run up and through the crotch of the tree.

In 2008, Sones, who became concerned that the tree could topple and cause damage, hired a worker to cut it down.  However, instead of just severing the portion of the tree on the Sones side of the property line, the laborer sawed off both of the secondary trunks, leaving just a large stump in the ground.  From that remaining stump, one could clearly see where each secondary trunk originated and how large it was at the base.  In fact, both secondary trunks measured about 23 inches in diameter.

Also, about 59% of the trunk was on the Sones’ side, whereas 41% was of the trunk was on the Kallis side.

In 2009, Kallis sued Sones for wrongful cutting and removal of the timber.

At trial, Sones admitted to cutting the tree, but argued that he should only be responsible for 41% of the total value of the tree since Sones owned the other 59%.  Perhaps that made sense, but it did not persuade the judge.

At trial, the Court found that the cost to replace the tree was $53,628.  It then doubled the amount (as allowed pursuant to California Civil Code §3346), and entered judgment against Sones for a whopping $107,256!

Sones appealed, but the Court of Appeal affirmed the Court’s ruling.  The appellate court determined that there were two alternate measures of damage that the trial court could have assessed:

•    The cost to replace the tree; and
•    The reduction in the market value of Kallis’ property after the tree was cut as compared with the value of the property before it was cut.

Because the trial judge had found that Kallis was likely to replant a tree similar in kind to the one Sones destroyed, the appellate Justices upheld the “cost of replacement” measure of damages as the proper approach.  (The diminution of the value of the real property probably would have been less than the replacement cost of the tree.  Had the property been on the market for sale, it is likely that Kallis would have only received damages equal to the reduction in the value of his property.)

What you can learn from the Kallis vs. Sones case is that before you chop down a tree (or hire someone to do it for you), be certain that it is entirely on your own property.  In that regard, it would be wise to obtain a survey plotting the location of the tree if you have any doubt as to which side of the property line the trunk is located.

No comments: