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What a releaf: Judicial branch axes woman's demand that neighbors uproot tree overhanging her roof

In a case involving two feuding Quincy neighbors, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled today it will never see a poem lovely as a tree.

In its ruling, the state's highest court upheld longstanding Massachusetts case law that a property owner cannot compel a neighbor to cut down an otherwise healthy tree - or even be forced to pay for any damages the tree might cause to the neighbor's property.

The court did say that Mary Shiel - who sued John and Keli-Jo Rowell over the 100-year-old sugar maple with branches that extended from their yard over her house - was free to prune back the branches she said were causing algae to build up on and damage her roof.

Shiel said it was fine with her if the Rowells wouldn't cut down the tree - but only on condition that the Rowells pay to trim the overhanging part. When they refused, she sued, arguing the "Massachusetts rule" that protects owners of healthy trees was an outdated relic of a more pastoral time and that the state should adopt "the Hawaii rule," in which neighbors could seek monetary damages for any physical damage caused by trees on adjoining lots. She appealed after a lower-court judge dismissed her case.

The court summed up her reasoning:

Shiel contends that the Massachusetts rule is outdated and should be replaced by the Hawaii rule because today people are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were when the Massachusetts rule was adopted. She argues that trees today are more likely to cause damage to neighbors' property and tree owners are better able to manage their trees, which justifies giving parties a right of action to resolve disputes in court.

The Rowells retorted there was no good reason to uproot the Massachusetts precedent, which has been upheld in a series of court decisions dating to at least 1931, and cited the legal principle of stare decisis, which basically says that out of little decisions, giant legal precedent grows:

The Rowells urge us not to disturb the Massachusetts rule, based on the doctrine of stare decisis and because, in their view, the Massachusetts rule is more sensible. They argue that there is no compelling reason to abandon the Massachusetts rule and that upholding precedent supports certainty in the law.

The court agreed with the Rowells and said there was no reason to prune back its 1931 decision, which dismissed a similar suit in which one person sued over root damage caused to his water and sewer lines by a neighbor's tree. In that case, the justices extended earlier prohibitions against suits over trees that shaded a neighbor's lot to a prohibition against suits over more damaging intrusions, such as tree roots blocking water and drain lines:

We see no distinction in principle between damage done by shade, and damage caused by overhanging branches or invading roots. The principle involved is that an owner of land is at liberty to use his land, and all of it, to grow trees. Their growth naturally and reasonably will be accompanied by the extension of boughs and the penetration of roots over and into adjoining property of others.

As the court did today, the court then said the harmed property owner was free to yank out the roots - just not with any expectation of remuneration.

And while today's court said it is not afraid of overturning settled law when merited - it cited a 1976 decision to overturn a prohibition on one spouse suing another as proof - this case contains no such merit, even if courts in certain other states it could name find our rule "outdated."

It may be true that people today are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were when the Massachusetts rule was adopted in the early Twentieth Century. But if changes in property ownership would lead us to believe that tree owners are now better able to monitor their trees, the same would be true for their neighbors to monitor and trim encroaching trees. It may be easier to recognize impending or potential harm to one's own property from overhanging branches and intruding roots than it would be for the tree owner to recognize what is happening next door. And even if it is also true that trees today are more likely to cause property damage to neighbors' property, it would be "undesirable to categorize living trees, plants, roots, or vines as a 'nuisance' to be abated." Melnick, 312 Md. at 520-521.

Going even further out on that legal limb, the justices continued:

The Massachusetts rule today, just as it did when [the 1931 case] was decided, may prevent unnecessary legal harassment from neighbors who merely have an axe to grind for reasons other than purported tree problems.

For these reasons, we decline to fell judicial precedent and instead reaffirm the Massachusetts rule ...

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Our tree guy said that if tree owners were liable for stuff that happened across the property line, nobody would ever allow trees to grow in the city. That would be really awful.

Voting closed 6

It's been a while since I had to learn trespass for the MA Bar Exam, but how is this not an unlawful intrusion, i.e. the Rowell's tree over Shiel's boundary line, on private real property?

Voting closed 4

You should arrest a tree?

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It's called "treespass".

I was told years ago that the general rule is your property line. If it's over the line, you can hack it. If not, then not. At the time I was told that pretty much all real estate questions of this nature had been settled by case law.

Damn. Lawyer found something new to waste a client's cash on...

Voting closed 1

It was already established above that you can cut your neighbor's tree back to your property line. What you can't do is make them pay for it. Paying for it is what the lawsuit is about.

Yes, this is a remarkably frivolous lawsuit. And it probably cost more than trimming back the tree.

Voting closed 3

"The court did say that Mary Shiel...was free to prune back the branches she said were causing algae to build up on and damage her roof."

IIRC you're allowed to prune back branches from a neighbor's tree back to the property line. I think the issue was more that she wouldn't pay for it and was demanding that the owners of the property with the tree should be responsible/liable.

Voting closed 3

Since we know she has the right trim to the property line doesn't that mean she blames the shadow of the tree? Trees can drop things to shorten roof life (pine trees are corrosive), but algae exists in shade/ is killed by sunlight. I don't know why anyone would think that a court would go along with this nonsense.

Voting closed 4

I've not yet heard of someone suing someone, recognizing that current law does not support their position, but imagining that their lawsuit should cause the law to change.

That's a whole lot of special.

Shiel's next lawsuit should be against the lawyers for accepting such a cockamamie idea. And if there's no law good enough to sue under, she should invent one.

Voting closed 5

Fisher v. Lowe, 333 N.W.2d 67 (Mich. Ct. App. 1983). Decision rendered as a result of a car accident between a Chevy and a tree. Judge Gillis wrote the opinion as a parody of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees.”

We thought that we would never see
A suit to compensate a tree.
A suit whose claim in tort is prest
Upon a mangled tree's behest;
A tree whose battered trunk was prest
Against a Chevy's crumpled crest;
A tree that faces each new day
With bark and limb in disarray;
A tree that may forever bear
A lasting need for tender care.
Flora lovers though we three,
We must uphold the court's decree.

Voting closed 0

...of Ursula Le Guin's "Direction of the Road"

Voting closed 6