Legal Matters: Walking the property line

Tree limbs snapped and ancient trunks split under the weight of ice in a severe storm that hit Carroll County last month. Some branches or trees fell onto a neighbor's property and damaged fences, windows or other property.

Who is liable for the damage?


Favorite lawyer answer: It depends.

If Joe Homeowner's healthy tree or limbs fell because of what is legally defined as an act of God, such as an ice storm, and the tree or limbs damaged Jack Homeowner's fence, Joe, the tree's owner, is not liable. Jack can file a claim on his homeowner's insurance policy to compensate him for the damage.


But if the damage was foreseeable - that is, the tree was diseased or dead or Joe knew it was likely to fall and could damage Jack's fence, Jack may be able to sue Joe for negligence. Jack's argument will be that Joe failed to prevent damage he could have prevented by taking down a tree that was likely to cause damage when it fell, ice storm or no ice storm.

If Jack wins his negligence case, Joe may be able to turn to his homeowner's insurance policy to compensate for the damage caused by the tree.

Suppose Joe's tree was healthy, but limbs from it hung over Jack's yard. If Jack is unhappy because of falling leaves clogging his gutters, which in turn lead to water backups that are damaging his roof, what rights does he have?

The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, tackled that question in a 1988 case. A property owner sued CSX railroad, arguing that falling branches and leaves from the railroad's trees were clogging his gutters, creating standing water that was damaging his roof, and that vines from the railroad property were encroaching on his land. He tried to get the railroad to clear the vegetation, but it refused. He cleaned the gutters and cut the vines, but leaves kept falling and the vines grew back quickly.

The court said the property owner could not legally force CSX to prevent the vegetation from encroaching on his property. But the owner could do "self-help," that is, cut limbs that hung over his land back to the property line and cut or dig out vines that crept over onto his land.

"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 his neighbor's consent," the court wrote.

To apply the court's ruling to Jack Homeowner's case, if Joe Homeowner's tree hung over Jack's yard, Jack would be within his legal rights to cut the branches back to the property line. But he could not cross onto Joe's property and take down the tree unless Joe gave permission.