Case of the Day – Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Rarely (as in “I don’t recall when I’ve ever said this before”) do I caution that the prevailing law in any particular state is wrong, and likely to be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ the next time an appellate court has to think about it. But I feel comfortable issuing that warning about today’s case.

From Ohio (home of rock ‘n roll, pro football, the first guy to walk on the moon, the brothers who turned a bicycle into the first airplane, and a ton of other cool things), comes a case that pretty much runs smack into Fancher, Herring, the Hawaii Rule, and a raft of other cases reflecting the modern view that a homeowner whose tree is wreaking havoc on the neighbor’s property may be ordered by a court to fix the damage at his expense.

To be fair, this case may be proof of the old legal aphorism that “hard cases make bad law.” Even the most cursory reading of the facts suggests that Dave Rababy may well have been a horse’s ass, hounding his neighbor because a tree dropped leaves and twigs on his property. Speaking as a guy who owns all of my five southerly neighbors’ leaves every fall – and these things are the size of dinner plates – I understand how it can be irritating to have other peoples’ leave on your lawn. But I would never sue them over it. I don’t think I would…

Dave had no such compunction, and his emesis of woe delivered to the court made him the boy who cried wolf. He howled so loudly about leaves and twigs and that his trimming crew was not allowed to trespass on Roy’s property and hack away at the offending tree, and minutiae of a similar nature, that his real complaint – his driveway was being heaved and foundations dislodged by the roots – got lost in the underbrush. In Fancher, Whitesell and even Iny, such damage was enough to get the neighbor’s tree declared a nuisance. If Dave had exercised a little plaintiff self-control, he might have gotten there, too.

We are too urban and too suburban, and our properties are too developed for the Massachusetts Rule to be the exclusive remedy for genuine harm done by a neighbor’s tree. That is the way the law is trending throughout the civilized world, and it is bound to reach Ohio sooner or later.

Rababy v. Metter, 30 N.E.3d 1018 (Ct.App. Cuyahoga Co., 2015). David Rababy and Roy Metter were next-door neighbors. Dave’s driveway abutted Roy’s property in certain places and nearly abuts in others. A fence separated the properties, and a stand of mature trees ran along the fence on Roy’s side of the boundary line.

Dave sued Roy for negligence, nuisance, trespass, and interference with a business contract. Dave asserted that trees at the edge of Roy’s property extended over his own property, and dropped leaves, needles, sap, and branches onto his car and home, and that some of the trees were rotten. He said the trees cast shadows over his property and cause mold growth on his roof, as well as damaged his driveway and foundation.

Dave complained he had a company to trim the overhanging branches, but Roy’s daughter prevented the unnamed landscape service company from properly performing this work. The complaint alleged the trees constituted an ongoing nuisance and trespass and that Roy negligently maintained the trees. Dave asked for $52,500: $37,000 for future tree trimming services and $15,000 in compensatory damages.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Dave argued that on “an ongoing basis, Roy’s trees encroach onto my property, specifically over my home and driveway. His trees deposit leaves, debris, and sap onto my property, causing damage.” Dave also repeated the claim about Roy’s daughter running off the tree trimmers.

Roy argued that he owed no duty to Dave to trim otherwise healthy trees on his property. He claimed the trees were mature and preexisted either party’s ownership of the property. He said that a year before, Dave hired Cartwright Tree Service to trim the row of pine trees that ran along the driveway. He said no one complained when Cartwright trimmed the overhanging branches from Dave’s property free, but when Cartwright began trimming branches and trees back further than the property line, Roy’s daughter objected. Roy said that he has no objection to Dave trimming the overhanging branches back to the property line.

Dave replied with new allegations that the trees in question were decaying or dead. Attached to the reply was a new affidavit that averred that the trees were decaying and dangerous and that one had fallen on his property. He included a picture of a tree that appears to have fallen across a driveway. However, the affidavit was neither signed nor notarized.

The trial court granted Roy’s motion for summary judgment and denied Dave’s. Dave appealed.

Gen. Robert E. Lee – a man rapidly being consigned to the ash head of history – knew something about duty … and even he couldn’t have found that Roy owed one to Dave.

Held: Roy owed Dave no duty, so the trial court’s dismissal of the case was upheld.

In order to succeed in a negligence action, the Court said, Dave must demonstrate that Roy owed him a duty, that Roy breached the duty, and that he suffered damages that proximately resulted from Roy’s breach. Here, Dave offered evidence that falling pine needles, leaves, sap, and sticks have damaged his car, driveway, and roof. He also alleges, without evidentiary support, that encroaching tree roots damaged his driveway and home.

While he showed damage, Dave was unable to show that Roy owed him any duty. A landowner is generally not responsible for the losses caused by the natural condition of the land. Instead, the Court observed, states generally allow one impacted by such growth the remedy of self-help. A privilege existed at common law, such that a landowner could cut off, sever, destroy, mutilate, or otherwise eliminate branches of an adjoining landowner’s tree that encroached on his land. But, the Court said, whether a separate remedy exists is an open question.

The Massachusetts Rule provides that in almost all circumstances, the sole remedy for damages resulting from the natural dropping of leaves and other ordinary debris from trees is the common law remedy of self-help. The rule does provide a limited exception for dead trees, just as Ohio has established a duty for urban landowners of reasonable care relative to the tree [hat overhangs a public street, including inspection to make sure that it is safe.” Where constructive or actual knowledge of an unreasonably dangerous condition exists on the land of an urban landowner, such as a dead tree, the duty prong of a negligence claim may be satisfied.

The reasoning set forth in support of the Massachusetts Rule, the Court said, is apt to the facts of this case: “[T]o grant a landowner a cause of action every time tree branches, leaves, vines, shrubs, etc., encroach upon or fall on his property from his neighbor’s property, might well spawn innumerable and vexatious lawsuits.” The Court thus adopted the Massachusetts Rule as the law of this jurisdiction.

But Dave also argued that in Ohio a “landowner in an urban area has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm to others from decaying, defective or unsound trees of which such landowner has actual or constructive notice.” Dave contended Roy’s trees were in such a defective condition and thus constituted a nuisance. Dave also argued that Roy, an urban landowner, had a duty to inspect his trees and protect others from a dangerous condition created by any unsound trees. Even if such a duty existed, the Court said, it only is breached when the owner has actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition.

Leaves – often a pain in the arse, but seldom a nuisance

The Court held that Dave put forth no evidence that any of the trees constituted a dangerous condition of which Roy was aware or should have been aware. He presented no any evidence that the trees are dead, decaying, or unsound, and cited no case holding that “the normal yearly life-cycle of a tree and the natural shedding of leaves, twigs, and sap constituted a nuisance. Thus, he provided no compelling justification for a court to hold that Roy’s trees case constituted a nuisance or a dangerous condition. The problems Dave had experienced with the trees “are the natural consequence of living in an area beautified by trees. Dave’s remedy is to trim tree limbs that overhang his property back to the property line, to which Roy averred he has no objection.”

The trees at issue in this case do not constitute a nuisance, and Roy is not negligent in regard to them.

Dave also asserted that the trees on Roy’s property constituted a trespass. But the elements of a successful trespass claim include an unauthorized intentional act and entry upon land in the possession of another. Here, there is no intentional act. Dave claimed that Roy’s actions of not removing or trimming the trees constitute an intentional act. But, the Court said, as it explained, Dave’s remedy for intrusion by vegetation is to trim it back to the property line.

In sum, Dave’s claims that detritus falling from trees from the neighboring property constituted a trespass, a nuisance, and negligence were simply not actionable. The Court cited a Maryland case that “it is undesirable to categorize living trees, plants, roots, or vines as ‘nuisances’ to be abated. Consequently, we decline to impose liability upon an adjoining landowner for the ‘natural processes and cycles’ of trees, plants, roots, and vines.”

– Tom Root


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