YOU PAYS YOUR MONEY AND YOU TAKES YOUR CHANCE
Over the past few days, we have seen several divergent views on boundary tree ownership: the Colorado view that ownership depends on the intent of the property owner; the Illinois view that ownership is determined simply by where the tree is growing; and the Connecticut view that both owners can hack at the branches and roots of a boundary tree with abandon.
Today, a Georgia court adds to the mayhem. In its view, a boundary tree is not the common, undivided property of either owner. Instead, it is owned in “severalty,” a term only a lawyer could love. “Severalty” means that Owner A is the exclusive owner of the parts of the tree on her property. Owner B is the exclusive owner of the parts of the tree on his property, and – in addition (and this is a big “in addition”) – each owner is deemed to have granted an “easement of support” to the other, meaning neither owner can do anything to his or her side of the tree that would kill the other side.
This sounds a lot like the Connecticut rule, except that the owners could mess a little with the trunk, as long as it does not make a mess of things on the other side. What is really interesting is that the case focuses on each owner’s obligation to not let the tree become dangerous to the other. That’s an aspect of boundary tree ownership we haven’t contemplated before.
Just maybe Georgia has something here. We would be more amenable if it could be described without employing the term “severalty.”
But what does this suggest if you’re in one of the states that is not Connecticut, Minnesota, Georgia, Illinois or Colorado? Well, in that case, you pays your money and you takes your chance.
Willis v. Maloof, 184 Ga.App. 349 (Ga.App. 1987). Mike Maloof was severely injured when a tree fell on him. Throughout the over thirty years he and defendant Bill Willis had lived as next-door neighbors, Mike had always assumed the tree belonged to Bill. It turned out that Mike was wrong: the tree actually grew on the boundary between their properties. Mike claimed the tree was diseased and that Bill should be liable for negligently failing to remove or remedy the hazard created by the tree. The jury could not reach a verdict, and the trial court denied Bill a directed verdict.
Held: Adjoining landowners of a boundary tree do not own the tree as tenants in common, but instead, each owner holds an interest “in severalty” on the part of the tree which rests on his or her side of the line, with an easement of support from the other. Thus, the Court said, Bill is entitled to a directed verdict in his favor, and owes Mike nothing.
The Court admitted that the issue of ownership and control over a boundary tree was one that had never been decided in Georgia. The Court analogized the issue to the rule applicable to party walls. By owning the part of the tree on his or her property, each of the landowners “has an interest in that tree, a property in it, equal in the first instance to, or perhaps rather identical with, the part which is upon his land; and in the next place embracing the right to demand that the owner of the other portion shall so use his part as not unreasonably to injure or destroy the whole.”
Like the case with a party wall, the parties owning a boundary tree have a duty to maintain the tree and take reasonable steps to guard against any hazardous condition the tree may pose.
In this case, the Court said, Mike had presented no evidence that Bill had breached his duty to maintain the tree. The owner of a tree is liable for injuries from a falling tree only if he knew or reasonably should have known the tree was diseased, decayed or otherwise constituted a dangerous condition. He or she has no duty to “constantly check all… trees for non-visible rot as the manifestation of decay must be visible, apparent, and patent so that one could be aware that high winds might combine with visible rot and cause damage.” Bill worked around the base of the tree often as he cultivated a vegetable garden in his yard near the tree, year after year. He denied any knowledge that the tree was diseased and denied seeing any evidence which would lead him to suspect the tree was unhealthy.
Mike’s expert, who inspected the tree after it fell, testified that at least three visible conditions told him the tree was diseased and posed a hazard. The bark at the base of the tree curved under instead of outward, indicating to the expert that the tree was virtually devoid of roots. A cavity or hollow in the side of the tree and fungus growing on the bark indicated to the expert that the tree was decaying. The expert said that in his opinion the average person’s “attention would have been drawn” to these conditions.
The Court didn’t bite. “Even assuming defendant should have noticed these conditions, the appellate panel found, “no evidence was presented from which a jury could find that defendant should reasonably have known the tree was diseased. The expert witness presented testimony from which a jury could find that the tree was in fact diseased. However, the testimony of the expert witness did not establish that a layman should have reasonably known the tree was diseased.”
Even though each owner had an exclusive right to the part of the tree on his side of the boundary, the distinction was not relevant in regard to the duty to maintain a single, indivisible tree. The disease in this tree was systemic and not confined to one side of some imaginary line. Therefore, the duty to maintain the tree could not be apportioned on some pro-rata basis depending upon that percentage of the girth of the tree which grew on either side of the property line.
Bill’s only duty was that of the reasonable man. The law did not charge him with an expert’s understanding of the inspection, care and maintenance of trees. Even Mike admitted he did not think the tree in question was dangerous or defective. Several other neighbors also testified the tree was bearing green leaves at the time it fell and did not appear to be diseased. Because Mike failed to present any evidence that Bill was or should have been aware that the tree was hazardous, Bill was entitled to a directed verdict, and one should have been granted.
– Tom Root