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Premises Liability Law – In Tennessee if a healthy tree falls on a neighbor’s property and does damage, is the tree owner responsible for this damage?

Posted on Aug 5 2013 8:08AM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Brief Summary:  The short answer is that in Tennessee a homeowner is generally not responsible for damage caused by their healthy tree that falls onto the property of another and causes damage.  The only time the premises owner could be responsible is if the tree is causing a nuisance or encroaching on the neighbor’s property.

 

Analysis:  The Tennessee Court of Appeals decided a recent case on a commonly asked question under Tennessee law.  The question is basically whether a homeowner is responsible if one of their live, healthy trees falls onto their neighbor’s property and does damage.  The Tennessee Court of Appeals in Cindy Russell v. Gene Claridy, 2013 WL 655235, No. M2012-01054-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. February 20, 2013) discussed a situation where a live healthy tree fell from the defendant’s property onto the plaintiff’s property, landing on the plaintiff’s van and causing damage of approximately $8,810.00.  In this matter the plaintiff had actually contacted the defendant some years prior regarding concerns about the tree however the defendant did not see any problems with the tree because it was healthy and basically on pasture land.  As a result, the defendant did not remove the tree.

 

The trial court ultimately found the tree fell due to an “act of God” and therefore the defendant was not liable for damages to the van.  There was no evidence presented to the court that the tree was unhealthy, was likely to fall or that the defendant had any notice of any likelihood of the tree falling.

 

On appeal, the plaintiff asserted this tree should still be constituted a nuisance because of the threat to the plaintiff’s property.  The court did note there are other Tennessee decisions which find that encroaching trees onto another person’s property that “adversely affected the plaintiff’s reasonable and ordinary use and occupation of her home, not to mention posing hazards to the plaintiff’s health and safety,” can constitute a nuisance under Tennessee law.  Russell at 3 (citing Lane v. W. J. Curry and Sons, 92 S.W.3d 355, 363 (Tenn. 2002)).  This is the general way Tennessee courts deal with healthy live trees that cause damage or encroach on property. 

 

The second type of situation involves trees that are unhealthy or dead.  In the Lane case the Tennessee Supreme Court noted that:

 

unlike the cases involving harm caused by live trees, which are based on nuisance or trespass principles, cases involving dead or decaying trees are typically analyzed according to negligence concepts. Thus, liability usually turns on whether the defendant landowner lived in an urban or rural area, and whether the defendant knew or should have known that the tree was dead or decaying and therefore was on notice that the tree might fall.

 

Russell at 3 (citing Lane at 364, n. 9).  However, in the Russell case at issue, the court noted there was no evidence that the live tree that fell on the plaintiff’s van was encroaching on her property or presented any imminent danger to her property prior to the storm that caused the tree to fall.  As a result, the Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s decision that the tree that damaged the plaintiff’s van “was felled by an act of God and that the [defendant] is not liable for the damage caused by the tree.”  Russell at 4.

This case shows there is a real difference between the two different types of falling tree cases.  When a healthy live tree falls and there is no reason for the premises owner to know there is a problem with the tree, then they will generally not be responsible.  When the tree has decay or is dead, then a normal negligence analysis is used to determine if the premises owner knew or should have known the tree might fall.

 

Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Defense Litigation blog.

TAGS: Negligence, Real Estate, Tennessee Premises Liability
Comments
Brian Lee  -  11/4/2013 10:59:17 AM
Great article!

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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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