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.
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.
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).
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