A question that was recently posed to our Ridgefield office is "What is the law as it relates to overhanging trees and their potential liability for damages in the State of Connecticut?"
The law, in any jurisdiction, is generally derived from two separate sources. These sources are:
Statutory Law is a law that comes from legislatively enacted statutes.
Case Law are laws that are interpreted and handed down by Judges.
Connecticut Tree Law
In Connecticut, the statute relating to damages for cutting trees, timber, or shrubbery can be found in Section 52-560 which provides:
"Any person who cuts, destroys or carries away any trees, timber or shrubbery, standing or lying on the land of another or on public land, without license of the owner, and any person who aids therein, shall pay to the party injured five times the reasonable value of any tree intended for sale or use as a Christmas tree and three times the reasonable value of any other tree, timber or shrubbery; but, when the court is satisfied that the defendant was guilty through mistake and believed that the tree, timber or shrubbery was growing on his land, or on the land of the person for whom he cut the tree, timber or shrubbery, it shall render judgment for no more than its reasonable value."
The statute provides liability for persons who cut any trees, timber, or shrubbery standing on the land of another, but what happens in the situation where a tree is on the boundary line of two properties. In the 1896 case of Robinson v. Clapp, our Supreme Court held that each of the owners upon whose land any part of a branch of a tree stands has an interest in the tree shall not do anything to his/her part so as to unreasonably injure or destroy the tree.
So what liability results from hanging branches or falling trees onto the property of another? In early times there was generally no liability for trees falling on neighbor's properties which came about because of large landholdings existing in a primitive state.
The law has evolved so as to apply the general rules of negligence. In other words, a tree owner has a duty to an adjoining landowner or others to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm. Connecticut courts have held that property owners are required to guard against probable dangers and they have an affirmative obligation to keep property over which they have control in a safe condition.
In Toomey v. State of Connecticut (1994), a tree branch fell from the defendant's property resulting in the death of the plaintiff's decedent. In Toomey, the Court held that an owner of a tree has a duty of reasonable care relative to the tree including inspection to make sure it is safe. In other Connecticut cases, it has been held that a defendant will be deemed negligent for failing to look or in failing to observe what is visible when he does look. Further, if the condition is one which the defendant would become aware of through the reasonable exercise of his faculties then the defendant is chargeable with notice.
If you are aware of some problem or potential danger it is best to put the owner of the tree on notice, preferably in writing, to provide that person with an actual notice rather than a constructive notice, which is what the owner should have known under the circumstances.
In summary, it is best to consult with an attorney before attempting any self-help in cutting down offending tree branches or if you receive injuries resulting from falling trees or branches.