“What is the law as it relates to overhanging trees and their potential liability for damages in the State of Connecticut?” was the question recently posed by a Patch reader.
The law in any jurisdiction is generally derived from two separate sources, which are: (1) statutory law, or law which comes from legislatively enacted statutes; and (2) case law, or laws which are interpreted and handed down by Judges.
In Connecticut, the statute relating to damages for cutting trees, timber or shrubbery can be found in Section 52-560 which provides:
Any person who cuts, destroys or carries away any trees, timber or shrubbery, standing or lying on the land of another or on public land, without license of the owner, and any person who aids therein, shall pay to the party injured five times the reasonable value of any tree intended for sale or use as a Christmas tree and three times the reasonable value of any other tree, timber or shrubbery; but, when the court is satisfied that the defendant was guilty through mistake and believed that the tree, timber or shrubbery was growing on his land, or on the land of the person for whom he cut the tree, timber or shrubbery, it shall render judgment for no more than its reasonable value.
The statute provides liability for persons who cut any trees, timber or shrubbery standing on the land of another, but what happens in the situation where a tree is on the boundary line of two properties. In the 1896 case of Robinson v. Clapp our Supreme Court held that each of the owners upon whose land any part of a trunk of a tree stands has an interest in the tree and shall not do anything to his/her part so as to unreasonably injure or destroy the tree.
So what liability results from hanging branches or falling trees on to the property of another? In early times there was generally no liability for trees falling on neighbor’s properties which came about because of large land holdings existing in a primitive state.
The law has, however, evolved so as to apply the general rules of negligence. In other words, a tree owner has a duty to an adjoining land owner or others to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm. Connecticut courts have held that property owners are required to guard against probable dangers and they have an affirmative obligation to keep property over which they have control in a safe condition.
In Toomey v. State of Connecticut (1994), a tree branch fell from the defendant’s property resulting in the death of the plaintiff’s decedent. In Toomey, the Court held that an owner of a tree has a duty of reasonable care relative to the tree including inspecting it to make sure it is safe. In other Connecticut cases, the courts have held that a defendant will be deemed negligent for failing to look or for failing to observe what is visible when he does look. Further, if the condition is one which the defendant would become aware through the reasonable exercise of his faculties then the defendant is chargeable with notice.
If you are aware of some problem or potential danger regarding a neighbor's tree, it is best to put the owner of the tree on notice, preferably in writing, to provide that person with actual notice of the claimed problem rather than assuming the owner has constructive notice, or that notice which the owner should have known under the circumstances.
In summary, it is best to consult with an attorney before attempting any self help in cutting down overhanging tree branches or if you receive injuries resulting from falling trees or branches.
Richard P. Hastings is a Connecticut personal injury lawyerat Hastings, Cohan & Walsh, LLP, with offices throughout the state. A graduate of Fordham Law School, he has been named a Connecticut Super Lawyer and is the author of the books: "The Crash Course on Child Injury Claims"; "The Crash Course on Personal Injury Claims in Connecticut" and "The Crash Course on Motorcycle Accidents." He can be reached at 1(888)CTLAW-00 or by visiting www.hcwlaw.com.