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Liability for Falling Trees

06.17.09 written by

With summer upon us, we will shortly suffer through the thunderstorms and extreme winds. Inevitably these storms will lead to falling branches and sometimes, even the toppling of entire trees. It is important that landowners know their responsibility for damage caused by the trees located on their property. In the case of Shoemaker v. Harris, a tree located on Mr. Harris’ property fell ultimately landing on Mr. Shoemaker’s van. Mr. Shoemaker sued Mr. Harris claiming he was ultimately responsible for the damage caused by the falling tree. The Municipal Court concluded that Mr. Harris, as the owner of the tree was strictly liable for the damage caused to his neighbor’s vehicle because only Mr. Harris had the ability to maintain the tree. 

Fortunately, for Mr. Harris, the Court of Appeals reversed the underlying court’s decision concluding that there must be a showing of negligence on the part of a landowner before any liability will be imposed for falling branches or trees. The appellate court advised that in order to hold a landowner liable for damage caused by the falling limbs or trees located on a landowner’s property, there must exist evidence that the landowner had actual or constructive notice of a danger that the tree would fall. In reversing the lower court, the appellate court found there was no evidence that Mr. Harris knew of the tree’s dangerous condition (actual notice) or that the dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that Mr. Harris should have discovered the danger and removed it before it damaged his neighbor’s property (constructive notice). 

As a result, landowners should be aware that they can be responsible for damages caused by falling limbs and trees located on their property. However, landowners are not strictly liable for the damage caused, but rather, only liable to the extent they knew or essentially should have known that a tree located on their land was likely to cause damage. In determining whether a landowner should have known that there existed a dangerous condition, Ohio courts will look at a variety of factors including the amount of time the condition existed; the size of the premises, the type of condition, and when a reasonable person would have discovered the condition. It would be prudent for landowners to conduct periodic inspections of trees located on their property to ensure the safety of others and surrounding property. Should something be discovered, they should take necessary steps to remedy potentially unsafe situations by hiring a licensed contractor.

NOTE: This general summary of the law should not be used to solve individual problems since slight changes in the fact situation may require a material variance in the applicable legal advice.