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Legal Series: My tree fell on my neighbour’s property, am I liable?

04 Jan 2019

Legal Series: My tree fell on my neighbour’s property, am I liable?
Legal Series: My tree fell on my neighbour’s property, am I liable?
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There are around three billion trees in the UK, many of them in the woodlands that make up 13% of our land area, but many more are in our care, in our gardens. They’re often seen to be as solid as the homes we live in – after all, some of them will have been there long before your property was built. But the reality is that sometimes trees fall, and if you’re really unlucky they’ll fall on something expensive, like a neighbour’s home, their car, or their prized petunias. OK, so maybe the petunias are a bad example. But if this happens can you really be held liable by your neighbour or was it just an ‘act of God’?

There are many reasons why a tree could fall – unusually high winds, weight of snow on an already unbalanced tree, illness or infestation, being a few. And, while often there are no signs that a tree may not be strong enough to withstand this, there will be times when it may be considered that all the signs were there and you should have picked up on them.
 
A tree can cause a huge amount of damage when it falls and quite rightly your neighbour is going to be looking for someone to blame, or at the very least, someone to pay for the damage which could run into many thousands of pounds. So, do they have the right to look to you for this? The litmus test in legal terms in such circumstances is, was the tree falling ‘reasonably foreseeable’?
 
Ask yourself:

  1. Has your neighbour written to you in the past informing you of worries they may have had about the stability or health of your tree(s)?
  2. If they did, was your response to ignore them, to look for yourself, or to get an arborist (a specialist in the health and wellbeing of trees) to make a proper assessment?
  3. How regularly do you have your trees surveyed by a tree surgeon or arborist?
  4. Have you noticed any obvious signs of weakness in your trees, and if so did you have a professional look at them?
 
You see, as the owner of the land that the tree grew on, you are responsible for its health and to ensure that it is stable enough not to fall on your neighbour’s property, so they would be within their rights to sue you for compensation if they felt you had not lived up to this responsibility. However, to win the case they would need to prove there was evidence that it was ‘reasonably foreseeable’ that the tree would fall, that you had been negligent – either in your responsibility to address their worries about your tree or that the tree was clearly unstable and you had neglected to address this.
 
In most cases it would make sense for the neighbour to claim on their insurance for the damage and to look to you to cover any shortfall, but such an event can cause irreparable damage to your relationship with them, so to minimise the possibility of this happening, and to protect yourself from legal claims should your tree cause damage to a neighbour’s property, here are a few things to do:
  1. Pop outside now, have a look at your trees and look for signs of compromised health – dieback, excessive sway, weeping wounds, insect infestation, etc. If you suspect any of these, call in an expert to review the situation and to rectify where possible.
  2. Regularly call in an arborist to survey all your trees. They will be able to identify areas of weakness, early signs of illness or infestation that could impact on the stability of the tree, and many of the causes of a foreseeable fall can be dealt with long before there is any possibility of it happening.
  3. The arborist should provide you with a report which can be used as evidence that you have done all you can to regularly ensure the health of your trees should anyone claim that you hadn’t.
 
If you would like to talk to our arborist about the health of your trees, or to book an appointment for a regular survey of them, we’re always happy to help. Call us on 0208 292 8992.

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