SAUCE FOR THE GANDER
I confess that I have always been a little uneasy at the cases that balance the Massachusetts Rule against harm – even inevitable harm – to a neighbor’s tree. If the Massachusetts Rule says that a landowner suffering harm from a neighbor’s tree has no recourse but to trim branches and roots back to the property line, it seemed like holding that the tree owner had no recourse if the trimming harmed the tree was just a practical application of the commonsense notion that what is sauce for the goose is as well sauce for the gander.
The property line limitation of the Massachusetts Rule is quite necessary. You cannot have the neighbor wandering into your yard, hacking the tree branch back to the trunk. But at the same time, standards of careful tree maintenance (think ANSI Standard A300) would suggest that cutting a limb halfway back to the trunk is negligence. Inasmuch as the afflicted neighbor cannot trim the tree beyond the property line to acceptable standards without the tree owner’s permission, the neighbor would be sandbagged if she were liable for not trimming it in a way that did not damage it.
Likewise, if a neighbor can save her foundation only by severing so many roots on her property that the tree’s health and safety is jeopardized, why should she be liable for what happens to the tree? It’s not as though she could have sued to have the tree removed: that’s the whole point of the Massachusetts Rule.
And yet, cases like Brewer v. Dick Lavy Farms, LLC, Fliegman v. Rubin, and Booska v. Patel lead the march toward limiting the Massachusetts Rule with the rule that a landowner had a duty to act reasonably when exercising self-help rights. Such a limitation on the Massachusetts Rule almost guarantees that the Rule will be further watered down by permitting suits against tree owners for encroachment. And when that happens, the Massachusetts Rule will be indistinguishable from the Hawaii Rule.
My worry that what some may be progress is just needless change is why was so cheered by a 2018 year-end decision from Florida that so succinctly expressed my own feeling that the Massachusetts Rule requires that the prohibition on bringing suit apply as much to the goose as it does to the gander.
Balzer v. Maxwell, 263 So. 3d 189 (Ct.App. 1st Dist., 2018). A large pine tree stood on Barbara Balzer’s property near her boundary with a parcel owned by Cindy Ryan. The tree’s roots encroached onto Cindy’s property, damaging the sewer line that ran under their driveway. To fix the sewer line, Cindy hired Hoyt Maxwell to remove her driveway and replace the line. While removing the driveway, Hoyt cut some of the encroaching tree roots. Although he did not kill the tree, Hoyt undermined the tree’s structural integrity and increased the risk that it might someday fall on Barbara’s house. To be prudent, Barbara paid to have the tree removed.
Afterward, she sued Cindy to recover the costs of removing the tree. After a nonjury trial, the court awarded Barbara only a portion of her costs to remove the tree. Barbara appealed, arguing that the county court erred by not awarding all of her costs. Cindy and Hoyt cross-appealed, arguing that the county court erred in finding them liable for damaging the tree because Cindy had the right to cut the encroaching tree roots. The circuit court reversed, reasoning that because Barbara could not be compelled to pay for Cindy’s damaged sewer line, she likewise had no cause of action against Cindy and Hoyt if the tree was damaged when Cindy exercised her privilege to cut the roots encroaching onto her property.
Barbara sought review of the circuit court appellate decision.
Held: Because the circuit court’s decision did not violate any clearly established principle of law, its decision holding that Cindy and Hoyt were not liable was upheld.
The holding in this decision, known as a second-tier certiorari proceeding, was limited to deciding whether the lower court’s decision departed from a “clearly established principle of law” resulting in a miscarriage of justice. If there is no controlling precedent, certiorari relief cannot be granted because without such precedent, the reviewing court “cannot conclude that a circuit court violated a clearly established principle of law.”
Under Florida law, the Court observed, it is well-established that an owner of a healthy tree is not liable to an adjoining property owner for damage caused by encroaching tree branches or roots, but the adjoining property owner “is privileged to trim back, at his own expense, any encroaching tree roots or branches… which has grown onto his property.”
The issue in this case, however, was slightly different, whether an adjoining property owner is liable to the tree owner when the self-help remedy damages the tree. The Court held that while there are conflicting decisions on the issue in other states, no Florida court has weighed in on the issue. For that reason, the Court said, “it follows that the circuit court did not violate clearly established law in ruling the way that it did.”
Barbara argued that McCain v. Florida Power Corp. established that negligence principles extended to suits against landowners in circumstances like this case. The Court disagreed because Barbara did not allege and the evidence did not show that Cindy damaged anything other than the tree whose encroaching roots Cindy “undisputedly had a right to cut.” The Court concluded that a “rule imposing liability for causing any damage to the tree in these circumstances would effectively eviscerate that right.”
– Tom Root