At some point or another, it is likely that every person will eventually have to deal with a boundary dispute.  A particularly common boundary dispute involves the trimming or cutting of a neighbor’s tree when the tree has grown over a property line.  Under California law, an adjoining landowner may reasonably trim the branches of a neighbor’s tree which overhang onto his/her property, but only up to the property line.  Adjoining land owners are not permitted to enter a neighbor’s property to trim or remove the tree or its branches.

Recently, a defendant found out the hard way what the repercussions of entering a neighbor’s property to abate the encroachment can be.  On January 31, 2017, the California Court of Appeal ruled that annoyance and discomfort damages resulting from tortious injuries to timber or trees are subject to the statutory damages multiplier.  Fulle v. Kanani, Case No. B271240.  The plaintiff in this case had several trees on her property which she claimed provided aesthetic benefits, shade, and privacy.  However, the trees partially blocked the defendant’s view of the San Fernando Valley.  Thus, defendant hired a work crew that went onto plaintiff’s property without her permission and cut the trees to approximately half their height and removed all the tree branches.

Plaintiff sued the defendant for trespass and negligence, requesting treble damages under California Code of Civil Procedure section 733 and California Civil Code section 3346.  The case was tried before a jury, which found that defendant intentionally, willfully, and maliciously entered plaintiff’s property and cut her trees.  The jury awarded the plaintiff $27,500 for damages to the trees, $20,000 for the cost of repairing the harm, and $30,000 for noneconomic loss, including annoyance and discomfort, loss of enjoyment of the property, inconvenience and emotional distress.  Plaintiff then went on to request treble damages for both her economic and noneconomic harm.  The trial court ruled that treble damages were only applicable to economic damages, not noneconomic damages.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal ruled the opposite, finding that annoyance and discomfort damages resulting from tortious injuries to timber or trees are the subject of damage multipliers under both sections 733 and 3346.  This ended up being a costly lesson for the defendant.  Adjoining land owners have a duty to act reasonably in cutting any encroaching trees or branches.  If you are ever unsure about your rights, the attorneys at Navigato & Battin are here to provide assistance.