(updated from article was originally published in the Palisadian-Post, April 7, 2005, p. 22)

The Turner Law Firm has successfully handled lots of tree cases during the past twenty-five years.

Trees may provide aesthetics and/or privacy, but a neighbor’s trees may be an annoying burden – the mess from falling leaves or fruit from overhanging tree branches;  and tree roots can cause extensive damages to hardscape, other landscaping, plumbing lines, etc., etc.   It is simply incredible the damages that a thirsty tree root can cause to a neighbor’s property.  Hence, in 1886 the California Supreme Court held a neighbor’s tree may constitute a “nuisance.”

California law principles:

  • Ownership laws:
    • Civil Code §833. Trees whose trunks stand wholly upon the land of one owner
      belong exclusively to him, although their roots grow into the land of
      another. (Enacted in 1872.)
    • Civil Code §834. Trees whose trunks stand partly on the land of two or more coterminous owners, belong to them in common. (Enacted in 1872.)
  • Rights
    • self-help:  The right to self-help is actually limited and must be carefully considered.  Caselaw has long held that an adjoining owner has the right to remove those portions of the tree that overhang or roots that encroach (Grandona v. Lovdal (1886) 70 C 161, 162), but in Booska v. Patel (1994) 24 CA4th 1786, 1791 the court “tempered” right to self-help by imposing a “duty to act reasonably.”
      • The result is that at a minimum, a property owner should consider relying on the advice of a licensed tree trimmer or arborist in seeking to trim an overhanging tree branch or removing the neighbor’s tree roots.  (Don’t have your gardener cut the neighbor’s trees.)
      • The “duty to act reasonably” often generally warrants providing notice to the neighbor before trimming an overhanging tree branch or removing the neighbor’s tree roots.
    • sue for damages or injunctive relief caused by the (overhanging /encroaching) tree roots or branch.    See, Bonde v. Bishop (1952) 112 Cal.App.2d 1, 6 (“‘The owner of a tree the branches of which overhang the premises of an adjoining landowner is liable for damages caused by the overhanging branches.”)
  • Liability and Damages:  Civil Code  §3346; Code Civ. Proc. § 733 – trees damage:  the measure of damages is three times the amount that would compensate for actual detriment, except when the damage is “casual or involuntary,” the actual damages are only doubled.  The treble damages provision is discretionary with the court but the doubling of damages is generally mandatory, unless, e.g.,  damages committed while acting in reliance upon a survey of boundary lines which improperly fixes the location of a boundary line.

The right to “self-help” is limited by a number of important rules.  

First, a court may subsequently find that the condition abated did not constitute a “nuisance.”

Second, a person who cuts another’s trees is liable for any “unnecessary injury”.  This limitation further tempers any right to self-help.   For example, in one case, the property owner was sued by his neighbor when the property owner’s contractor severed the roots of the neighbor’s tree, which irreparably damaged the tree.  California law provides for double and treble (three times) liability for damages to a tree.

Third, damaging a protected Oak or other protected tree also may have additional governmental penalties.  (Oak trees are protected by state law. (See Pub. Resources Code §21083.4.)  Many local governments have regulations to preserve and protect oak trees, requiring a permit to cut down mature oak trees or to prune their larger branches. (See, e.g., L.A. County Code §22.56.2050, et seq.)

Fourth, property owners have often been mistaken about whether a tree was in fact on their side of the property line.



California law provides important rights to property owners whose trees are wrongfully removed or damaged.

The concern about not damaging your neighbor’s trees and knowing which side of the property line they are on is very significant because the replacement of a full-grown tree can be $15,000 or more. Additional damages include the associated costs, such as crane rental, removing and replacing concrete patios, driveways and swimming pools. Alternatively, the damaged property owner can sue for the diminution in value suffered by the loss of trees.

Fences, driveways, and other seemingly logical or natural boundary markers may not, in fact, correctly depict your actual boundary line. Under the statutes, a mistaken belief that the tree was on your side of the property line would not work as a defense in court; relying on an incorrect land survey is also not a defense.   Property owners in Pacific Palisades (and throughout California) have found themselves in litigation when they have cut or removed trees that they later learned were on their neighbor’s side of the property line.

In one case, a homeowner learned after removing a row of ten trees on his side of a large retaining wall that the retaining wall did not mark the property line and that a land survey disclosed that the trees were on the other side of the property line. A certified arborist determined that the replacement value of the trees was $10,000 per tree. Because the homeowner did not have a survey done, under Civil Code Section 3346, the property owners were exposed to a $300,000 damages claim.


The Court of Appeal has repeated in a number of cases that the purpose of the statutory tree laws was to “educate blunderers (persons who mistake the location of boundary lines) and to discourage rogues (persons who ignore boundary’ lines).”

In one case, an award of treble damages was affirmed on appeal based on the facts that the defendant cut his neighbor’s trees “for the sole purpose of improving the view from his own house.”

If you are considering “self -help,” consider the following steps before doing any cutting: (1) consulting with an arborist or similar expert as to the condition of the tree (2) documenting the extent of the encroachment by appropriate photographs and measurements, which may necessitate doing a land survey, by a licensed surveyor, which depicts the condemned tree or trees; (3) providing the encroaching neighbor with written requests for relief, which should explain the need for abatement; and (4) giving the neighbor an opportunity to alleviate the situation voluntarily.


If you find yourself subject to a claim that you removed or damaged your neighbor’s tree, your homeowner’s insurance policy may provide coverage (including hiring an attorney to defend you if you are sued).  But always consult with an attorney or your insurance professional (agent or broker) before making an insurance claim.   (Also note, recent caselaw has limited insurance coverage for tree damages claims.  See, Albert v. Mid-Century Insurance Company (2015) 236 Cal. App. 4th 1281, 1292.)