QUESTION: Our association has a tree limb extending into the back yard of a neighboring property. If it breaks and causes damage are we liable?
ANSWER: As a rule, owners are responsible for injury caused to others by their want of ordinary care or skill in the management of their property. If the tree belongs to the association, the board is responsible for properly caring for the tree so as to prevent any foreseeable damage to the neighboring property.
Negligence. If the tree has dead or dying branches and the board was warned they needed pruning, and the board fails or refuses to do so, and a dead limb crashes into the neighbor's house, the association is likely liable. If there is nothing wrong with the tree, you are not required to remove a healthy limb just because the neighbor dislikes it.
Neighbor Self-Help. A neighboring owner may cut any encroaching branches or roots up to the boundary line as long as he does so in a reasonable manner that does not cause harm to the tree. (Booska v. Patel (1994) 24 Cal. App. 4th 1786, 1790-1791, adjoining owner may cut back encroaching growth but cannot do so in a manner that causes foreseeable damage to the tree or another’s property; Bonde v. Bishop (1952) 112 Cal. App. 2d 1, 5-6, adjoining owner may remove limbs or roots of a neighboring tree that extends upon his property up to the boundary line). Aside from the self-help method of cutting any offending branches or roots, the adjoining owner may also seek damages or injunctive relief if the encroaching branches or roots cause injury to his property. (Fick v. Nilson (1950) 98 Cal. App. 2d 683, owner of land injured by another owner’s tree branches and roots that encroach upon his land may cut them or sue for damages and abate the nuisance; Stevens v. Moon (1921) 54 Cal. App. 737, tree roots that extend into another owner’s land and injured his crops may be cut by that owner to the extent the roots encroach upon his land; adjoining owner may recover damages for any injuries sustained from the encroaching roots).
Nuisance. Even though the neighboring property has sustained no injury by the overhanging limb, branches and roots that intrude onto the property of another are considered a nuisance and your neighbor may abate the nuisance by cutting the offending branches and roots at the boundary line--so long as he acts reasonably not to seriously damage your tree. (Civ. Code §3346.)
Trees whose branches extend over the land of another are not nuisances, except to the extent to which the branches overhang the adjoining land. To that extent they are nuisances, and the person over whose land they extend may cut them off, or have his action for damages and an abatement of the nuisance against the owner or occupant of the land on which they grow; but he may not cut down the tree, neither can he cut the branches thereof beyond the extent to which they overhang his soil…So, it would seem, he may have abated the roots projecting into his soil, at least if he has suffered actual damage thereby. (Grandona v. Lovdal, (1886) 70 Cal. 161, 162.)
...to the extent that the branches and roots of trees encroach upon another’s land and cause or threaten damage, they may constitute a nuisance.” (Lussier v San Lorenzo Valley Water District, (1988) 206 Cal. App. 3d 92, 102 n.5.)
Falling Leaves. A neighbor might also be unhappy about falling leaves from the association's tree. If so, he cannot demand the association clean up the leaves, so long as the association reasonably maintains its tree.
Tree Removal. For more, see "Roots and Tree Removal."
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