Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 6, 2021


Sometimes, state law leaves a landowner suffering from invading roots and branches from a neighbor’s tree with no remedy but a chainsaw. As we all know, the Massachusetts Rule – alive and well in a number of states – lets a property owner trim offending branches and roots up to the property line, but that’s it: no lawsuits, no damage awards, no injunctions, and no meddling lawyers.

It’s the traditional approach.

Other states follow variants of the Hawaii Rule, and let a property owner sue when a neighboring tree becomes a nuisance, causing “sensible harm,” a weird expression apparently meaning something more than falling leaves and twigs.

Then there’s the approach adopted by a Florida court of appeals of few words.  In the Sunshine State, a ficus tree near a landowner’s property boundary line was wreaking havoc on the neighbor’s house. The ficus is a very old tree, maybe 60 million years (and possibly as old as 80 million years). It features aerial roots and is pollinated by a single species of wasp known as a fig wasp.

The owner of the tree was General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., obviously a big, faceless corporation with oodles of money. So Mike sued, asking for money damages. Why not? Everyone knows big mega-corporations are nothing but ATM machines, and you activate the cash-dispensing feature by walking through the courthouse door.

The Court was unsympathetic. Mike, you have a saw? Use it, man. Concerned that to permit Mike to get free money because branches from the ficus were overhanging his property might work in derogation of the time-honored principle of self-help, the Court of Appeals followed the Massachusetts Rule, despite the fact that the opinion candidly admitted that most all other courts seemed to be headed toward the Hawaii Rule.

Ah, tradition!

Richmond v. General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., 454 So. 2d 16 (Ct.App. Fla. 1984). Mike Richmond sued General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., for money damages based on the the company’s “negligence” in permitting branches of a ficus tree growing on its property to extend over and onto Mike’s home lot. The trial court wasted no time in dismissing Mike’s complaint.

Mike, obviously no reader of this blog, appealed.

Held: The Massachusetts Rule prevailed.

While there is substantial authority to the contrary, the Court said, “which may indeed represent the majority rule… we agree with those decisions which hold that in view of the undoubted right of the landowner himself to cut off intruding roots or branches at the property line, no such action may be maintained.”

The Court said that letting Mike proceed with his lawsuit to redress a claimed wrong “which might otherwise be obviated by the time-honored remedy of self-help would represent a wasteful and needless use of the judicial system.”

– Tom Root


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