Case of the Day – Wednesday, January 4, 2023


Nothing can skew the impartial dispensation of justice like a rich defendant. After all, the Massachusetts Rule is pretty doggone clear: self-help trumps litigation. But even where that is true, sometimes rich defendants – like hard cases – make bad law.

Take the case of Mrs. Norwood. When the tree roots of a 25-year-old oak tree planted by the City of New York invaded her sewer line, Mrs. Norwood thought that the whole deal stank. After all, the City knew the sewer line was there 25 years before, and it knew the little oak sapling it planted at that time would become a mighty and sewer-invading oak.

Dorothy always had the power in her ruby slippers to return to Kansas. Likewise, Mrs. Norwood always had the power of her diamond-studded Massachusetts Rule rights: She could have dug those roots out of her yard, and the City could not raise so much as a little stink about it.

But Mrs. Norwood couldn’t see spending a dime to take care of her property when the City, with its weighty balance sheet and untold millions of dollars in the bank, could do it for her.

She sued. The Court agreed. Massachusetts Rule, solid though it usually is, be damned! Let the government pay.

Norwood v. New York, 95 Misc. 2d 55 (Civil Ct. Queens, June 21, 1978): Back in 1953, the City of New York planted an oak tree over a sewer line leading to Delema Norwood’s home. Over time, the oak tree roots entered the joints of a sewer line, causing the pipe to burst. Delema sued, claiming that the damage was the City’s responsibility.

At trial, Delema’s expert testified that the sewer was properly designed and constructed when it was installed in ‘53.

Held: Because the sewer line was properly constructed, and the City planted a tree that had the propensity to dig into sewer lines, The City of New York, rather than Delema, was responsible for the cost of repairing the sewer line.

The question, as framed by the Court, was whether a municipality that plants an oak tree over a residential sewer line, is liable to the landowner when the roots of the tree damage the sewer line? The Court found that 25 years before, City, without the request or permission of landowner Delema Norwood, planted an oak tree at the curb line of her property over the sewer line leading from her house to the sewer in the street. An oak tree has roots that go down deep and have a propensity for entering the joints of sewer pipelines. The roots of this oak did exactly that and caused the sewer pipe to burst.

The Court found a case where the landowner was liable because the sewer line was constructed incorrectly. But that was not the case here, where the sewer was properly constructed. Delena’s expert testified that the sewer was made of vitreous clay pipe and joined with cement. He testified that this was a proper method of construction at the time the sewer was built, over 25 years ago.

In another case, the plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed because sufficient facts to establish that defendant was responsible for this damage were not alleged. That court noted that “whether the defendant can ever be held liable for the natural growth of a tree, in possession of or belonging to the city, is uncertain.”

Finally, a plaintiff alleged that roots from a defendant’s poplar tree had grown onto the plaintiff’s property, disturbing and eroding her swimming pool and the patio around it. The court there held the complaint stated a cause of action.

In this case, the Court weighed the idea that urban trees are beneficial to city dwellers and enhance the surrounding area. On the other hand, owners of property are entitled to have their sewer lines protected; the destruction of sewer lines will cause obvious discomfort not only to the landowner but to others in the area.

In balancing these interests, the Court held, at least where the sewer line is properly constructed, the municipality, rather than the landowner, should bear the cost of repairing a damaged sewer line when it plants a tree. After all, the oak was well known for having the propensity to dig into sewer lines. In this situation, it was foreseeable that sometime in the future, damage might very well occur.

The Court admitted that “while a rule imposing liability upon the municipality may tend to deter the planting of certain kinds of trees, the municipality may still safely plant other trees. Moreover, with respect to newly constructed sewer lines, the municipality should be in a position to avoid liability since a properly constructed sewer line now should be impervious to the roots of trees.”

The Court acknowledged the Massachusetts Rule, observing that “a landowner may, on his own land, resort to self-help to remove roots adversely affecting his own property.” While some argue that this is sufficient protection for a landowner and he need not be given a cause of action for damages where tree roots damage his sewer line, other jurisdictions reject this argument. But this Court ruled that it would be unrealistic to limit a landowner to a right to dig for and cut roots. “While such a limitation upon the rights of a landowner may be proper with respect to overhanging branches of a tree, the Court wrote, “such a limitation would be manifestly unfair to a landowner whose property may be directly injured by the effect of spreading roots. Unlike branches that are readily visible and which may often be cut without great difficulty, roots are not generally visible and may require considerable digging in order to remove them. Indeed, the landowner will usually not know that he has reason to cut roots until damage has occurred.”

The Court found that the City owed for the cost to repair the sewer line.

– Tom Root


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