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 When they refused, she sued, arguing the "Massachusetts rule" that protects owners of healthy trees was an outdated relic of a more pastoral time and that the state should adopt "the Hawaii rule," in which neighbors could seek monetary damages for any physical damage caused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Shiel contends that the Massachusetts rule is outdated and should be replaced by the Hawaii rule because today people are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were when the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 ...