Author: Geoffrey Murry
New case law has heightened the stakes in tree-related disputes among neighbors. In January 2017, the California Court of Appeal for the 2nd District in a case entitled Fulle v. Kanani ordered the trial court on remand to triple Encino homeowner Jeanette E. Fulle’s non-economic damages arising from intentional harm to trees on her property by Kaveh M. Kanani, a malicious neighbor. In this case, those non-economic damages arose from the homeowner’s “annoyance and discomfort” at the loss of the trees and the inconvenience arising from work at her property to remedy the damage. The case was one of first impression in California courts, addressing for the first time whether the tree-related damage multipliers in Code of Civil Procedure section 733 and Civil Code section 3346 applied just to a party’s “out of pocket” expenses arising from the harm to trees or also to intangible damages, including emotional distress damages. The court found that both categories of damages are subject to the multipliers.
Triple damages for willful injury to the trees of another have been allowed in the State of California since 1851. Conduct that is merely negligent that results in injury to another’s trees requires the award of double damages. At the time of enactment of Code of Civil Procedure section 733 and later, in 1872, when a similar provision was included in the state’s new Civil Code, the public policy supporting this extraordinary relief was primarily to discourage poaching from wooded lands over which one had no claim of right. In 2017, however, the more common application of these code sections is to remedy negligent or intentional acts that have the effect of killing, weakening or disfiguring trees that occupy residential real property.
Despite these changed circumstances – where the plaintiff now is not necessarily an owner of substantial acreage but rather an aggrieved residential homeowner and the defendant is not a poacher but rather either a malicious or clueless neighbor or a hapless laborer – the law remains in force and is employed frequently in neighbor litigation. The amounts at stake can be significant. In the Fulle v. Kanani case above, the damages awarded by the jury to the homeowner were $27,500 for damage to the trees, $20,000 for the cost to repair the harm caused, and $30,000 for the homeowner’s “annoyance and discomfort, loss of enjoyment of the real property, inconvenience, and emotional distress.” Because the neighbor cut the trees intentionally — here, to improve his view of the San Fernando Valley — all of those amounts are tripled in the award, increasing the basic award of $77,500 by $155,000.
There are several lessons present in this:
- Always give some thought before cutting trees or even limbs and branches near property lines as mere blunders will result in double damages awarded to a successful plaintiff;
- An intentional act that harms trees may seem like quick and easy way to resolve an annoyance but it can be very costly indeed both in terms of tripled damages and your own attorney’s fees; and
- If trees on your property are harmed by a third party, whether accidentally or intentionally, the mandated double or allowed triple damages can make pursuing a claim more worthwhile.
You can read the full text of Fulle v. Kanani (2d Dist. 2017) 7 Cal.App.5th 1305, here.
As a seasoned real estate litigator, Geoffrey Murry of Ad Astra Law Group has the experience to handle disputes among neighbors related to trees, as well as boundaries, easements, encroachments, or nuisance activity, amid a variety of other real estate disputes, all in a competent, cost-efficient and compassionate manner. You can contact the firm at 415-795-3579 to arrange an in-person meeting or telephone consultation to discuss your matter.