We often talk about what happens when a common fence blows down but we rarely talk about what happens when, against his neighbor’s wishes, one neighbor cuts down a tree growing on the property line. The Soneses found themselves on the unfortunate end of this situation when they cut down an Aleppo pine tree that, over time, came to straddle the property line. The Soneses had a good reason to cut down the tree. Apparently, they felt that it had grown too unwieldy and they were concerned that it might fall and cause damage. The Soneses claimed to have put a note in their neighbor’s mailbox, informing them of their intentions to cut the tree, but the neighbors claimed to receive no such note.
According to the Civil Code, a tree growing on a property line is a “line tree” and belongs to both neighbors in common. Neither owner can cut the tree without the consent of the other nor cut that part of the tree that extends into his land if doing so would injure the common property in the tree.
The Soneses did not dispute that they were liable for cutting down the tree. Rather, on appeal, they argued that the court failed to reduce the amount of damages by their proportional interest in the tree. The court disagreed, finding instead that the measure of damage for the loss of the tree was “the amount that would compensate for the actual detriment” and that here, the trial court was correct in taking into account the unique, personal benefits the tree provided. After doubling the damages pursuant to Civil Code section 3346, the Soneses were liable for $107,256.62. I’ll bet they wished they had asked their neighbors first.
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