Who is Responsible for Fallen Trees After a Hurricane?
Under Florida law, which neighbor is legally liable for a tree that falls onto someone else's property?
Which neighbor is liable when a tree falls onto someone else's property?New England poet Robert Frost once observed that "[g]ood fences make good neighbors." Robert Frost, Mending Wall, in North of Boston (Edward Connery Latham ed., 1977). The same, it appears, cannot be said of good trees. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, many Floridians are left wondering about who is responsible for damage caused by trees falling from a neighbor's property onto their own property. The health of the tree determines which landowner is responsible for damages to property.
Land owners are generally not responsible for extreme natural conditions that cause otherwise healthy, well maintained trees to fall onto a neighbor's property. These so called "acts of god" (or "force majeure") are outside of a land owner's ability to predict or prepare for. Thus, damage from these natural events is typically not a land owner's responsibility. The seminal case in Florida on this issue is Gallo v. Heller, wherein Gallo sued Heller because Heller's trees were damaging Gallo's property. See Gallo v. Heller, 512 So. 2d 215 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1987). Damage included damage to the roof by tree branches, sidewalk cracking from tree roots, Melaleuca leaves falling on Gallos property causing their dog to contract a severe allergy and shade from the trees caused some of Gallos' landscaping to die.
The Gallo court ruled that Florida follows the common law and that a land owner is not liable to persons outside of the land for a nuisance resulting from trees and natural vegetation. The court stated the underlying rationale is as follows: "It is wiser to leave the individual to protect himself, if harm results to him from this exercise of another's right to use his property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance, and the public to the burden, of actions at law, which would be likely to be innumerable and, in many instances, purely vexatious."
However, if an unpruned, old or diseased tree rolls into a neighbor's yard during or after a storm, the tree owner may be liable.
A property owner often has a duty to inspect his or her property for hazardous conditions, and even without man's help, trees can become a hazard. The general rule for liability hinges on whether the tree owner "knew or should have known that his tree was unsafe."
So, if your neighbor failed to make reasonable inspection of his or her property and an unpruned, diseased or dying tree tips onto your land, your neighbor is likely to be held liable. This is especially true if your neighbor was previously alerted to the dangerous condition of the tree.