Many readers of this column saw the picture of the pine tree across my home several weeks ago on the front page of The Baxley News-Banner. Because the tree fell from my neighbor’s yard and not my own, many assume that the neighbor would be responsible. At first blush, this seems to make good sense but the law in Georgia on matters such as this provides that she is not liable and for good reason.
First, to explain the scenario, our neighborhood is covered in huge pine trees. Our section of Anthony Street especially is rampant with pond pines (pinus serotina), which are native to Southeast Georgia and grow in typically wet areas. The outward appearance of the tree suggested that it was healthy until immediately before it fell. This fact would be key to any legal wrangling that might commonly result from an incident of this nature. Experts believe the tree likely had heart rot which is a condition caused by a fungus causing the tree to weaken from the inside out. The evidence of this could be clearly seen where the tree snapped off four feet above ground level, but was not otherwise apparent from the outward appearance of the tree.
In Georgia, landowners are generally not liable for damages caused by trees falling from their property unless they knew or had reason to know that the tree presented a dangerous condition. In other words, if a landowner of reasonable prudence would have concluded that a particular tree needed to be pruned or cut down and failure to do so caused the damage, the tree’s landowner would be responsible. I have had the opportunity to litigate this issue on a couple of prior occasions. The first involved an apparently healthy tree being blown onto a neighbor’s house. In that case, the Court correctly ruled that since the tree (which was healthy) fell due to wind only and not the wind and combined negligence of the landowner, the landowner was not liable. In a different case, I represented a landowner who had a tree with a rotten top that fell on a building on adjoining property. In that case, though the tree was rotten, we were able to have the case dismissed because the landowner, who owned several thousand acres and likely millions of pine trees, had no actual or constructive notice of the tree’s condition. This latter scenario was explored in 2013 by a Chatham County jury when they returned a $12 million verdict against the City of Savannah in a case involving an oak limb that fell and impaled a young woman. In that case the jury believed that, although there was no evidence that the City actually knew the limb was a danger to fall, the City should have known that it would present a dangerous condition to passing motorists.
The good news is that we have homeowners’ insurance and the good folks at the local insurance company are taking care of this issue for us. The moral to this story is that if you have a tree in your yard that looks like it could be dangerous, take the appropriate steps to neutralize the threat before any harm occurs. Further, if your neighbor has a diseased, dying or otherwise dangerous looking tree, you should give proper written notice to make that owner responsible for any damage caused by the tree’s falling.
Remember: to submit a question or issue email me at email@example.com or via U.S. Mail at 132 W. Parker Street Baxley, GA 31513.