Tree disputes can be a source of frustration and conflict between neighbors and homeowner associations. These disputes often arise when a tree on one person's property damages another person's property. In such cases, it is important to understand who is responsible for the damages and what steps can be taken to resolve the issue. This topic and questions regarding who is responsible have become recurring, particularly with the recent heavy windstorm and rainfall throughout Southern California.
The starting point for analysis of liability concerning any tree in California is the determination of ownership. Ownership of a tree is determined by the location of the trunk of the tree. Generally, if the trunk of a tree originates entirely on one person's property, then that person owns the tree. (Civil Code §833.) Owners are generally responsible for injury caused to others by their want of ordinary care or skill in the management of their property. (Civil Code §1714.) If a tree belongs to the HOA, then the HOA is responsible for properly caring for the tree to prevent any foreseeable damage to others, which includes maintaining the health of the tree (including limbs and roots), keeping it trimmed, and taking note of any dangers posed by it.
Generally, the standard for responsibility for property damage is not a “strict liability” standard but is instead a “negligence” standard. What that means is that even if a tree or branch from a tree belonging to the HOA fell and damaged an owner's property, the HOA is not automatically responsible for the damage unless the HOA had been negligent in maintaining the tree. In other words, to hold the HOA responsible for the damages caused by the fallen tree, the owner of the damaged property would need to establish that the HOA had breached the requisite standard of care with respect to tree maintenance and that the damage resulted from that breach. If the owner can prove that the HOA had been negligent, then the HOA would be responsible for all damages resulting from that negligence.
If the tree was healthy and strong at the time it fell but was knocked down due to a natural cause such as strong winds or heavy rain, the damage is considered an “Act of God” and the HOA may not be held liable for the damages. This Act of God doctrine provides that a property owner may not be liable for damages caused by an unpredictable and uncontrollable natural event, such as strong winds or heavy rain. In other words, a property owner may not be liable for damages caused by a natural phenomenon unless they have created the conditions that caused the phenomenon. However, whether a storm or earthquake causes a properly maintained tree to fall or lose a limb may not always be clear.
If, on the other hand, the tree was diseased or in a state of disrepair at the time it fell, then the HOA may be responsible for the damages. In this case, it can be argued that the HOA should have taken steps to remove or repair the tree and that its failure to do so constitutes negligence. It is the duty of every property owner to maintain their property, including trees, in a safe and hazard-free condition. If the fallen tree belongs to HOA then the HOA may be responsible for damage caused to the owner or neighbor's property, but only if it can be found that the HOA failed to properly maintain the tree. Generally, such failure is considered to be “negligence” and a negligent owner can be liable for all damage resulting from such negligence.
Another factor to consider is whether the property owner who suffered damages was aware of the hazardous condition of the tree and failed to take steps to protect his or her property. If so, the owner may be partially or fully responsible for the damages.
Another frequent concern from our associations is the issue of fallen leaves, fruit, twigs, or debris belonging to an HOA tree that ends up on an owner's or neighbor's property. Generally, unless there is actual physical damage, California law does not offer any remedy to the affected property owner unless they can prove that the HOA failed to maintain the tree. Leaves, twigs, etc., are considered natural debris and are treated as any other material that falls or blows onto one's property, even where they cause damage, such as clogged gutters.
Tree disputes can be a complex and emotional issue but understanding the general rule and exceptions can help resolve the issue fairly and efficiently. Taking legal action over fallen branches and debris can be more expensive than the clean-up itself. So while the affected property owner cannot require the HOA to clean up or pay for the mess, a cooperative approach may help preserve the relationship and reduce legal expenses for all parties involved.
If you are involved in a tree dispute, it is important to communicate with the other party and seek legal assistance if necessary to resolve the dispute. As with many HOA disputes, preparation is key. The association should consult with tree care professionals to regularly trim and maintain trees belonging to the HOA.