Supreme Court Expands Rights of Property Owners Harmed by Neighbors' Trees

Property owners whose trees cause substantial damage to adjoining property may be held financially responsible, the Tennessee Supreme Court said Thursday in a unanimous decision providing a new legal remedy for neighbors harmed by encroaching limbs or roots.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice Frank Drowota, says the trees can, in some cases, fit the legal definition of "private nuisance." Under the state's private nuisance law, compensation may be awarded for removal of the tree and actual damage to the property as well as for inconvenience and emotional distress suffered by the adjoining landowner.

The ruling stemmed from a Memphis case in which Gloria B. Lane filed a lawsuit claiming the branches and roots of trees on property adjoining hers had caused major damage to her home and resulted in health problems. She was denied relief in the trial court, a decision affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

The lower courts based their decision on a 1949 Tennessee Supreme Court opinion, Granberry v. Jones, in which the court affirmed a prevailing legal rule that "no landowner has a cause of action from the mere fact that the branches of an innoxious tree, belonging to an adjoining landowner, overhang his premises. . . " The rule said a law allowing neighbors to cut off overhanging branches to the property line was "a sufficient remedy."

"The rationale for the rule was that a landowner has the ‘liberty to use his land, and all of it, to grow trees and 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,'" Drowota wrote.

The 1949 court limited a plaintiff's remedy to "self-help," or the right to trim encroaching vegetation. But, the court added, the decision was not intended to address "whatever rights" a plaintiff may have to recover the cost of cutting the overhanging branches or foliage.

In the Memphis case, large oak trees on rental property owned by W.J. Curry & Sons, were described as "overshadowing" the house in which Lane has lived her entire life. Damage from overhanging branches has included destroying her roof and causing ceilings to fall. Roots from the trees have clogged the sewer line leaving the one bathroom unusable for two years. As a result of the long-standing problems from the trees, Lane testified she has been under the care of a psychiatrist and takes medication for emotional problems.

"The plaintiff is not physically able to cut the limbs back that hang over the house and she cannot afford to hire someone else to do it," Drowota wrote. "Nor can she afford to repair the damage to the exterior and interior of her home, including the hole in her roof."

In reviewing Lane's case, Drowota said the court looked at approaches taken by other states concerning encroaching vegetation. Courts across the nation "uniformly hold that a landowner has a remedy of self-help, meaning that the landowner has the right to cut encroaching branches, roots and other growth to the property line. . .," he wrote. But, there are varied rules regarding any remedies beyond self-help.

"After carefully considering the various approaches of other jurisdictions and our own decision in Granberry, we have decided to join the growing number of states that have adopted the Hawaii approach," Drowota wrote.

The Hawaii Rule strikes a balance between discouraging trivial lawsuits and allowing recovery in cases where it is warranted. The rule, embraced by the Tennessee Supreme Court, imposes a requirement of actual harm or "imminent danger of actual harm to the adjoining property."

Limiting relief to self-help "encourages a ‘law of the jungle' mentality because self-help replaces the law of orderly judicial process as the exclusive way to adjust the rights and responsibilities of disputing neighbors," the chief justice wrote. "It seems that more harm than good can come from a rule that encourages angry neighbors to take matters into their own hands."

The court held that encroaching trees and plants are not legally nuisances "merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property. . ." Under the court's decision, they may be regarded as a nuisance only when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to neighboring property. The court's ruling leaves intact existing law allowing adjoining landowners to cut away encroaching vegetation to the property line.

The court concluded that the lower courts erred in Lane's case by finding that her only remedy was self-help. The case was sent back to the trial court for a determination of damages "and other appropriate relief."