Urban Landowners in Maryland Have a Duty to Inspect Property and Handle Diseased or Damaged Trees to Prevent Damage to Neighbors

tree limb with symptom of wood decay

Tree limb (on the left) with wood decay symptom. Photo: University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center (HGIC)

This is not legal advice.

A frequently asked question is what a homeowner can do when a neighbor’s tree has become diseased and poses a danger. The neighbor may be trying to treat the tree to save the tree or might not be able to afford to have the tree taken out correctly by a trained professional. In these cases, courts have found that a residential property owner has a duty to eliminate the danger posed by a diseased tree and prevent the tree from damaging a neighbor’s property. The exception to this would be when a healthy tree causes damage due to an act of God, such as a storm.

Maryland courts have not explicitly dealt with a diseased tree falling on a neighbor’s property. The Court of Special Appeals has dealt with the issue of a motorist injured by a tree limb falling through his windshield. In this case, the motorist was driving through a recently finished subdivision in a natural woodland area of Montgomery County, and the tree limb fell due to the natural decay process. The court highlights that a landowner would need to be aware that the tree was in a deteriorated condition. Urban landowners would have a duty to inspect trees on their properties to determine if trees are dangerous. This duty to investigate would not extend to rural property owners and owners of suburban forests due to the size and number of trees on these tracts of land.

During the inspection, the urban landowner would have to deal with any discovered diseased trees. An urban landowner with a diseased tree would be under a duty to eliminate the danger to prevent the diseased tree from falling or damaging a neighbor’s property. If the urban landowner does not do anything and the tree damages a neighbor’s property, then the urban landowner would face potential legal liability for the damage caused by the falling tree.

Looking at an example, an urban landowner who has a tree with Emerald Ash Borer damage, the landowner would need to either treat the tree and deal with dead limbs that could damage a neighbor’s property or have the tree removed. If the urban landowner fails to do this or the tree continues to decline after the treatments and the landowner fails to do anything, and the tree damages a neighbor’s property, then the urban landowner would be liable to the neighbor for the damages caused by the tree.

tree with emerald ash borer damage

Emerald ash borer damage. Photo: UME HGIC

One case where a property owner might not see liability from damages caused to a neighbor’s property from a tree would be with an act of God. Acts of God are typically events such as storms, earthquakes, or another events outside of human control. If the tree owner can show the tree fell due to the act of God and not due to disease, then the tree owner will typically not be liable for the damage.

Urban landowners with trees need to take into account that there is a duty to inspect trees in Maryland. Excluded from this duty would be rural landowners and suburban forest landowners. If a diseased tree is found on the property, then the urban landowner would need to either treat the tree or have the tree removed to prevent the tree from damaging neighboring landowners. University of Maryland Extension’s Home & Garden Information Center provides resources, for example, on handling issues such as Emerald Ash Borer and other tree pests and diseases.

References

Hensley v. Montgomery County, 25 Md.App. 361 (1975).

The University of Maryland Extension. Home & Garden Information Center: Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), available at https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/emerald-ash-borer-eab (last visited, Nov. 15, 2018).

Resource

How Do You Decide When to Remove a Tree? University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center

By Paul Goeringer, Extension Legal Specialist, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Maryland

3 Comments on “Urban Landowners in Maryland Have a Duty to Inspect Property and Handle Diseased or Damaged Trees to Prevent Damage to Neighbors

  1. While realizing this article/column is not intended to be legal advice, it would be appreciated to have some perspective on whether the compromised tree responsibility probably extends to damage or injury in public spaces. The limb of a compromised tree will presumably fall eventually so that damage will occur to neighbor’s property. Presumably damage to a car on street or people on sidewalks would be the same, except they would not always be there vs. neighbor’s property.

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  2. Quite a bit of my work involves inspecting trees for health, stability and structural integrity, and sometimes condemning them if unsafe. Most bad situations are easily remedied. However, some get ridiculous. (We are in California.) I condemned a very dead and very decayed ponderosa pine with a trunk about six feet wide at the base because it was about to fall squarely onto a home. Animal rights activists protested and wanted the very dead and very decayed and very dangerous carcass protected because there was a hole bored into the top of it where a woodpecker ‘might’ live. No one ever actually saw a woodpecker up there. The hole could have been abandoned years earlier. Regardless, the woodpecker who might have lived there or might have moved on had more rights that the homeowner who owned the property that the woodpecker had at one time or another been trespassing on. Other trees become a problem when they block views or shade solar panels. Trees are protected so stringently that a permit is needed to prune some of them. Sometimes one can not get a permit. Yet, one who can not get a permit to prune a tree responsibly might be sued for not pruning them away from a neighbor’s solar panels.

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