Friday, July 27, 2018
Nuisance rule for trees rooted in history, reaffirmed by Mass. high court
In an opinion suitable for textbooks, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the rule of nuisance that neighbor may not sue neighbor over property damage from a healthy, overhanging tree.
A resident of Randolph, Massachusetts, complained that a neighbor's overhanging tree, a 100-foot sugar oak, had caused property damage by promoting algae on the complainant's roof. The high court reiterated the historic rule that a property owner cannot be held liable in nuisance for damage caused by a neighbor's healthy tree, whether unruly roots that damage a foundation, or the natural shedding of leaves, branches, and sap. A neighbor is entitled to trim back offending incursions, the court observed.
The court reaffirmed the historic rule despite the complainant's entreaty to consider alternative approaches from other states. The rule emerged from a time of lower population density, when it would have been excessively burdensome for property owners to monitor all trees near property lines, the court explained. "We invite challenge to antiquated laws," the court wrote. Nevertheless, the court declined to "uproot precedent." The historic rule continues to have relevance by minimizing litigation, the court reasoned, especially when the law is clear that a neighbor may cut back overhanging branches.
Affirming the lower court, the case is Shiel v. Rowell, No. SJC-12432 (Mass. July 16, 2018) (Cypher, J.).