SOMEBODY HERE OWES ME MONEY
Today we consider an interesting problem, this one submitted by alert reader Tracy of Pinebark, New York. Tracy reports that “our neighbor’s old dead tree came down across our parking area, totaling both our cars. Their insurance company denied the claim saying no one notified them and that it was a live tree. My landlady’s insurance company denied the claim saying it wasn’t her tree, so she wasn’t responsible. She knew about the problem trees on their property and didn’t notify them. I need to get some sound legal advice and the NY state statutes to show first that the neighbor should have done something and that my landlady should have notified them that they should do something. Help!! Thanks so much.”
So, someone owes Tracy money. But who?
First, our obligatory disclaimer, Tracy. We’re not New York lawyers, and for that matter, we don’t even play them on TV. For sound New York legal advice, you should consult a local attorney. Not Sam Waterston, either. But right now, get out your yellow pad and take down a few concepts to pass on to your solicitor.
There are two problems to contemplate here. First, what responsibility do the neighbors have? And second, what liability does your landlady have?
First, the neighbors: You reported that in the past year, a branch from the tree crushed your gazebo tent and another took out part of your landlady’s shed. You also said your landlady’s insurance company adjuster said it wasn’t her responsibility because the neighbors’ tree was dead. You told us that you agree with the dead tree analysis, because you had an arborist inspect the tree and arrive at the same conclusion. In fact, you reported, the neighbors have had work done on the tree before, so they had certainly had constructive notice of its precarious condition. But you say the neighbors’ insurance company asserts the tree was alive, so the neighbors aren’t liable. You think the insurers may be dissembling.
We are shocked, shocked we say, by the suggestion that insurance companies would prevaricate! Let’s consider New York law with respect to the neighbors. In Ivancic v. Olmstead, the Ivancic boy was hurt when a branch fell from the Olmsteads’ tree. The Court held that a property owner has no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for nonvisible decay. Rather, the decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm. If visible evidence of decay is present, the failure to inspect won’t be a defense.
We don’t think you’re quite correct on your mention of “constructive notice.” “Constructive notice” means the neighbors reasonably should have known. It’s much like if you’re sitting in your windowless cube at the office, and you see 10 co-workers get off the elevator, shaking water off umbrellas and removing water-spotted raincoats. You don’t have actual notice that it’s raining, but any reasonable person should be aware its probably raining just based on what you’ve observed. That’s constructive notice.
Your neighbors, on the other hand, probably had actual notice, which you would have if you wandered into the corner office and saw the rain falling outside the window. Because the neighbors’ tree experts had removed one side of a “y” prior to the tree falling, they undoubtedly saw the decay and heard the arborists’ report. They didn’t have to know that the tree has to be dead — just that it was decaying in such a manner as to create a foreseeable risk.
If we were cynical, we’d suggest the neighbors’ insurance company is “gaming” you. Perhaps the adjusters figure that if it denies ten claims, some of the claimants – say four or so – will give up. Six will press on. By denying everything initially, the insurance company has cut its exposure from 10 claims to six. No claims examiner gets promoted for paying claims, we might suggest. If we were cynics. Which we’re not.
Your local lawyer might want to collect a good, written report with photos from your certified arborist, add to it observations that the neighbors were on notice of the tree’s condition, and write to the neighbors’ insurance company. It would be good not to feed your lawyer before he or she contacts the carrier, so he or she is especially grumpy. If that doesn’t work, your avenue for relief is going to court. We would strongly urge you to use legal counsel rather than trying to represent yourself in small claims court. It’s not that we get a commission from referring you to counsel. If we did, we’d send you to our Uncle Fred (who’s a pretty good mouthpiece). But you hired an arborist, so you already know the value of hiring people who know what they’re doing. You shouldn’t stop now.
You also asked about going after your landlady for not telling the neighbors they had a problem. That’s a fascinating question, one we’ll take up tomorrow.
Ivancic v. Olmstead, 66 N.Y.2d 349, 488 N.E.2d 72 (1985). Ivancic was working on his truck in the driveway of his parents’ home in Fultonville. Since 1970, Olmstead had owned and lived next door. A large maple tree stood near the border of the two properties, and its branches extended over the Ivancic land. During a heavy windstorm, an overhanging limb from the tree fell and struck Ivancic, causing him serious injuries. He sued, maintaining that the branches hanging over his parents’ property constituted trespass, and that the Olmsteads were negligent. The trial court refused to instruct on the trespass claim, but the jury found against the Olmsteads on negligence. The Olmsteads appealed.
Held: The verdict against the Olmsteads was reversed. The Court held that no liability attaches to a landowner whose tree falls outside of his premises and injures another unless there exists actual or constructive knowledge of the defective condition of the tree. Ivancic made no claim that the Olmsteads had actual knowledge of the defective nature of the tree, and presented no evidence that the Olmsteads had constructive notice of the alleged defective condition of the tree. None of the witnesses who had observed the tree prior to the fall of the limb saw so much as a withering or dead leaf, barren branch, discoloration, or any of the other indicia of disease which would alert an observer to the possibility that the tree or one of its branches was decayed or defective.
The Court held that as to adjoining landowners, a property owner has no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for nonvisible decay. Rather, the decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm. Ivancic’s expert surmised that water invaded the tree through a “limb hole” in the tree, thus causing decay and a crack occurring below. But he admitted that the limb hole was about 8 feet high and located in the crotch of the tree which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to see upon reasonable inspection. Although, the Court said, there may have been evidence that would have alerted an expert that the tree was diseased, there was no evidence that would put a reasonable landowner on notice of any defective condition of the tree.
Thus, the fact that Mrs. Olmstead testified that she did not inspect the tree for over 10 years was irrelevant. On the evidence presented, even if she were to have inspected the tree, there was no indication of decay or disease to put her on notice of a defective condition so as to trigger her duty as a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent the potential harm.
As for the trespass, the Court held that the Olmsteads didn’t plant the tree, and the mere fact that they allowed what appeared to be a healthy tree to grow naturally and cross over into the Ivancic parents’ property airspace, could not be viewed as an intentional act so as to constitute trespass.