In an article of just a few months ago I discussed a recent California case, Kallis vs. Sones, that discussed the potential consequences of the wrongful cutting of a neighbor’s tree (SEE “Get Consent Before You Cut, or Pay.”). Since that time, yet another California Court has affirmed a significant damage award for injuring a neighbor’s tree, further emphasizing the caution that one must take when dealing with a neighbor’s tree(s).
In the case of Rony v. Costa, Ellen Rony and Paolo Costa were neighbors in Marin County. Rony had two towering Monterey cypress trees on her property. She had them professionally maintained and considered them a major landscaping feature of her yard. The trees also provided the property significant shade.
In 2008, Costa decided to install an outdoor pizza oven in his yard. To clear a zone for the smoke and heat for the oven, he paid a day laborer to cut tree branches extending into the area. In the process of clearing the area, the laborer cut branches from one of Rony’s cypress trees that extended over Costa’s yard. The cuts were not of “professional” quality and testimony at trial suggested that the cuts damaged the tree’s health and aesthetics. Rony filed suit against Costa, alleging that he was liable for the resulting damages.
The trial court found Costa vicariously liable for the day laborers work and found the damage to the tree to be $7,530, based on an estimate provided by an expert witness. The court also awarded an additional $15,000 for the detriment suffered by Rony, making the actual damages $22,530. The amount was then doubled to $45,060 under the statutory double-damages provision in California (Civil Code 3346(a)). Costa argued on appeal that the trial court should not have awarded the additional $15,000. The appellate court affirmed the damages award.
The appellate court held that an award of damages will not be disturbed if it is supported by substantial evidence. The measure of damages for tortious injury to property, including trees, is the amount that will compensate for all the detriment caused, whether that detriment could have been anticipated or not. Here, the trial court used a diminution of value measure of damages. It took the initial $7,530 damages estimate and awarded an additional $15,000 based on the lost “aesthetics and functionality” of the tree. The appellate court concluded that the trial court’s award was supported by substantial evidence and thus refused to second-guess the amount.
This ruling shows us how whimsical or nebulous damages awards can be for injuries to trees. This is yet another example of the court using some undefined approach to calculate damages, without any real precise methodology or evidence. As such, this case again highlights the importance of understanding your rights and responsibilities before resorting to self-help, because if you do not understand the consequences you could have a large judgment entered against you for cutting down the wrong tree (plus the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in your own attorney fees to defend the action).
If you have questions about the subject of this article, or anything else relating to real estate law, please contact Brewer Offord & Pedersen LLP at (650) 327-2900, or visit our website at www.BrewerFirm.com.