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Downed Trees and Tree Limbs - Who's Responsible?

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"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in." - Greek proverb

Homes in established neighborhoods - the ones filled with big, mature trees - are often considered more desirable by many, thanks in no small part to the leafy canopy overhead. Mankind has had an affinity for trees since the very beginning of history, for both practical and romantic reasons. They provide shade and shelter for property, improve air quality, and boost property values.

March and April are known for strong winds and storms, and it's often during such an event that a tree can be damaged. How you handle the aftermath will depend on a number of factors, including the location of the tree in relation to neighboring properties.

Homeowners insurance may assess a certain worth for the trees on your property, while an insurance claims adjuster might affix a different value on a tree that's damaged, depending on the extent of the damage and whether or not it extends past your property line. And you might have an even different idea of value if the tree isn't yours, but the property damaged by it belongs to you.

Common causes of tree damage

The value of a tree is measured by many standards - location, shade provided, beauty, variety. But the true value of a tree is often measured by the cost incurred when it's damaged. Common causes of damage to trees include:

  • Storms/wind
  • Insects
  • Disease/ rot
  • Root damage

Who owns the tree?

In the state of Indiana, ownership of a tree is based upon the location of the trunk of the tree. If the tree trunk is on your property, you own the tree, regardless of how many branches hang over into your neighbor's property. If the tree is on the property line, the owners of each property bear shared responsibility for the care and maintenance of the tree. In a case such as this, it's a good idea to maintain a civil and cooperative relationship between property owners.

Responsibility

For all the shade and beauty a tree provides, sometimes a limb falls or a tree gets knocked down in a storm. When it happens entirely on your property, there's no question where the responsibility lies for cleanup. But when the limb or tree comes down on a neighboring property, who is responsible?

The law in such an instance can be tricky to navigate. Damaged limbs that encroach onto a neighboring property can be trimmed and/or removed by the affected property owner, provided that there is no additional damage inflicted on the tree and that there is no trespass onto the owner's property. In such an instance, property boundaries can be a source of dispute, so tread carefully. A tree that falls onto a neighboring property is still the responsibility of the tree's owner, insurance coverage notwithstanding.

Indiana law imposes on all landowners the aspect of reasonable care when it comes to the inspection and care of trees that, by virtue of their location, could become a hazard to neighboring properties. "Reasonable care" is defined by the degree of caution or concern that a prudent and rational person would exhibit in ensuring the safety of self and others; failure to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of trees can lead to a determination of negligence. Such negligence exhibited by commercial property owners can fall into the realm of premises liability, and a negligent owner can be held financially responsible for medical expenses of someone hurt by a downed tree or limb.

What to do with a fallen tree

After a big storm, chances are there will be trees down or damaged throughout the area. Tree removal companies will be busy fielding calls and scheduling crews. When hiring a tree service, be sure that the company you choose is licensed, bonded, and insured for tree removal. In the City of Evansville, a company or individual making themselves available for hire trimming or removing trees must have a license issued by the city's Tree Advisory Board. As part of the city's Urban Forestry Department, the Tree Advisory Board is managed by the Evansville City Arborist.

If you choose to forego hiring a service and attempt to trim or remove a tree yourself, be aware that it can be a dangerous job, particularly in the aftermath of a storm. There are several factors to consider:

  • Power lines - If any part of the tree is in contact with power lines, assume that those lines are energized and DO NOT attempt to remove or trim the tree. Call in the professionals.
  • Angle of fall - Examine the tree to determine the direction it will fall when cut; if power lines, buildings, or vehicles are in the fall path, or if the tree will fall across a roadway, leave the job to professionals. The money you save doing it yourself may end up spent in legal fees.
  • Tree height - The majority of trees needing to be cut will be a great deal taller than you; consider hiring a professional with the right equipment and experience to safely remove the tree.
  • Weather - Do not attempt to remove or trim a tree in dangerous weather conditions.
  • Equipment - Use proper safety equipment such as gloves, safety glasses, hearing protection, hard hats, etc. Do not climb while carrying cutting tools.
  • Chainsaws - Use the right size saw for the job; the blade should be at least as long as the diameter of the tree. Keep the blade out of the dirt.
  • Positioning - Do not straddle the branch or trunk you are cutting, do not saw between your legs, and do not stand on the log you are cutting.
  • Footing - Take care not to stand on pieces of branches or in slippery leaves while cutting.

Bottom line: unless you know what you're doing, trimming or removing a damaged tree can be extremely dangerous, not to mention expensive. Practicing reasonable care with your property can help you to reduce or avoid legal issues involving trees in the spring storm season. But, if you or someone you love has been injured by a fallen limb or tree, speaking with an attorney can help to preserve your legal rights if the tree's owner is proven to be negligent. Your attorney can examine the facts of your case and determine if you have the right to pursue compensation.

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