Some readers want to know their legal rights when tree branches or roots encroach on neighboring property.
Dorothy J. Kelso, of Timonium, has a tree on her property, located 2 to 3 feet from a street that was widened some years ago. The branch of Kelso's tree extends across her property line over the next-door neighbor's driveway as well as the street.
Recently, a branch from the tree fell on the roof of a new car owned by Kelso's neighbor. The neighbor contacted her insurance company and it paid for repairs. Now, Kelso has received a letter from the neighbor's insurance company stating, "Since our investigation shows that this loss occurred due to negligence on your part, we shall expect you to reimburse us for $2,298.74"
Kelso wants to know if she's financially responsible for the damage to the roof of her neighbor's car. "Wasn't the negligence on my neighbor's part for not trimming the branches above her driveway?" she asks.
Kate Bolden, of Baltimore City, has a large tree in her back yard.
The roots of Bolden's tree have grown onto her neighbor's property.
The neighbor claims "the tree roots have shifted her house and wants the tree cut down and the roots removed." The neighbor wants her house fixed and Bolden's insurance to pay for it. Bolden wants to know if she's legally responsible for these damages, and if so, "Will my homeowner's insurance take care of it?"
In a 1988 case, the Maryland Court of Appeals noted that courts throughout the country "uniformly hold that a landowner has a self-help remedy. Thus, a landowner has a right to cut encroaching branches, vines and roots back to the property line."
The court further explained, "With regard to self-help, the landowner is generally limited to cutting back growth to the property line; he may not enter the adjoining landowner's property to chop down a tree or cut back growth without the neighbor's consent."
Courts of different states diverge in deciding whether an adjoining landowner has a legal remedy beyond self-help. Maryland courts apply what has become known as the "Massachusetts Rule," which limits the adjoining landowner to self-help under almost all circumstances.
In adopting the "Massachusetts Rule," the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote, "To grant a landowner a cause of action every time tree branches, leaves, vines shrubs, etc., encroach upon or fall on his property from his neighbor's property, might well spawn innumerable ... lawsuits. We have gotten along very well in Maryland, for over 350 years, without authorizing legal actions of this type by neighbor against neighbor."
The Court of Appeals left the door open for legal action if damage is caused by a dead or decaying tree. "Under certain circumstances, a duty might be imposed upon a landowner on whose property the dead tree stands to take reasonable steps to prevent injury to his neighbors or passersby," the court noted.
Based on the current state of the law in Maryland, it appears that both Kelso and Bolden are safe from lawsuits by their neighbors. The neighbors are limited to a right of self-help by trimming overhanging branches and cutting back encroaching roots to the property line.
Of course, the rule may be different for properties outside of Maryland.
If a neighbor or their insurance company persists and files a lawsuit, it is likely that Kelso's or Bolden's homeowner's insurance company would be obligated to defend the suit (subject to the payment by the insured of the policy "deductible.")
Since Kelso has received a formal claim letter demanding payment for the damage to her neighbor's car, Kelso should notify her homeowner's insurance company. If the insurance company is aware of the Maryland case law, it most likely will advise the neighbor that her claim is denied.