By JUDD MATSUNAGA

In California, where trees are plentiful, homes are close to each other, and homeowners often have a disproportionate sense of entitlement, tree disputes are commonplace. Whether the issue is one of: (1) roots lifting driveways; (2) trees dropping debris; or (3) trees blocking views, it is important not to underestimate the complexities of the dispute before you decide to act.

Encroaching branches and roots: You might think that you have the absolute right to cut offending branches and roots that encroach upon your property. Not so. California “tree law” was changed in the case of Booska v. Patel (1994), when a California appellate court held that a neighbor does not have the absolute right to cut encroaching roots and branches so that they end at his or her property line.

In this case, a man named Booska owned a 30- to 40-year-old Monterey pine. The roots of the tree grew into property owned by a man named Patel. Apparently, the roots were cracking Patel’s walkway. Therefore, Patel hired a contractor to excavate along the length of his yard three feet deep. This excavation severed the roots of Booska’s tree.

Booska sued Patel for injuries to the tree, claiming the tree was now unsafe and unable to support life. As a result, the tree owner, Mr. Booska, removed the tree at his own expense. Patel argued that he had an “absolute right” to sever the roots on his property without regard to any injuries inflicted on Booska’s land.

The California appellate court analyzed Patel’s argument and the cases he cited and concluded, “Whatever rights Patel has in the management of his own land, those rights are tempered by his duty to act reasonably.” In other words, the health of a tree must be taken into account.

The rule is simple: You may trim branches on your side of the property line, but you can’t touch branches on your neighbor’s side. Trim, but do not butcher. For if you hack at the offending vegetation too much, and you manage to kill the plant in the process, you’ll be liable to your neighbor for going too far.

You may think, “If the tree dies, I’ll buy another tree – it can’t cost that much.” Not so. The courts have stressed that only reasonable costs of replacing destroyed trees with “identical or substantially similar trees” may be recovered (Hassoldt v Patrick Media Group, Inc., 2000). The cost of a mature, 20-year-old tree may be quite expensive.

For example, in Rony v. Costa (2012), a neighbor hired an unlicensed day laborer to trim a cypress tree that was encroaching over his property. But the worker also cut (i.e., hacked with a chainsaw) substantial parts of the tree that were on the tree owner’s land, damaging the tree.

The tree owner sued. The court ruled that the neighbor had “drastically reduced the tree’s aesthetics and compromised its ability to provide shade” and awarded $7,530 in compensatory plus $15,000 in additional actual damages for “loss of aesthetics.” Total actual damages equaled $22,530. The award was then doubled pursuant to statute, resulting in a damages award of $45,060.

Tree Dropping Debris: Another area of contention is tree debris, e.g., leaves, fallen fruit, and sap. For example, your neighbor’s tree sheds leaves into your pool, or his pine needles fall onto your roof, clogging your rain gutters. You say, “Isn’t there a law that prevents the neighbor from having a tree that causes such a mess in the first place?”

The legal term for this type of breach is “nuisance.” A nuisance under California law is defined as anything that “is injurious to health, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property…” (Civil Code 3479)

Unfortunately, when it comes to tree debris, the law is on your neighbor’s side. Generally, you do not have the right to insist that your neighbor take responsibility for the natural growth and resulting debris of his tree so long as his tree is reasonably maintained. Going to court to have a neighbor ordered to pick up fallen debris is not practical or economical. Sorry.

Trees Blocking Views: If your neighbor’s tree(s) and hedges block your view, check with your city to find if there is any “view ordinance” in your neighborhood. If so, you’re lucky – you’ll be able to get your neighbor to remove any tree(s) blocking a view that existed at the time of purchase or acquisition of the view claimant’s property (although you may need an attorney’s help).

If your city does not have such a “view ordinance,” all may not be lost. Under a little-known California law (Civil Code Section 841.4), trees and hedges planted in a row to form a barrier may be deemed a fence. Therefore, if they exceed 10 feet in height, they can be deemed a nuisance and hence illegal under Wilson v. Handley (2002).

In conclusion, the best approach to work out a tree problem with your neighbor is to talk to your neighbor. Informally and kindly ask your neighbor for his help resolving the problem. It may turn out that the neighbor was unaware of the problem and may be quite willing to accommodate you in some way that is satisfactory to both sides.

Some common sense is useful in determining how to handle the problem. Perhaps his gardener can trim his tree in the manner necessary to keep it from encroaching into your property, or prune the tree a bit more frequently. This approach shifts the risk of damage to the tree owner. If both parties each give a little, compromise should successfully resolve the matter.

But, who are we kidding? If everyone was reasonable, there would be no attorneys. And in California there are a lot of them. If the “good neighbor” attempt fails, before you take matters into your own hands, consider consulting with an attorney regarding your options. Typically a letter should be sent, and if that fails, then a lawsuit may need to be filed.

Try calling your local county bar association for help finding a real estate attorney. In Los Angeles County, the phone number for the Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) is (213) 243-1525 (Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m). Each referred client will receive a free 30-minute consultation with the attorney.

Finally, if you do decide to cut encroaching tree branches or roots yourself, you must be careful how you do it. You must act “reasonably.” If a court finds that you negligently damaged the neighbor’s tree, you can be held liable for damages, which your homeowner’s policy may not cover.

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in Estate/Medi-Cal Planning, Probate, Personal Injury and Real Estate Law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. I paid to have a ficus tree removed from my patio they were also to put a root guard. I have a ficus tree growing on my patio now. Is the tree service required to come back and remove it again?

  2. My name is Hele Ge, and I live in Half Moon Bay, CA. I am looking for an attorney who has knowledge of personal injury caused by tree roots.
    In the morning around 8:30 AM on 10/29/21, I was tripped, fell, and seriously injured by an uplifted paver on the path leading to a storage shed on my property. The cause of this raised paver was lifted by roots from neighbor’s pine tree they planted one foot from the property line right behind the storage shed in 20 years ago.
    In early 2020 when I went to the storage shed and looked for things, I noticed that some pave stones raised around the slab of the shed, which is the foundation of the shed. I knew these raised pavers were lifted by the roots encroached from neighbor’s tree. Concerning these encroached roots could break the slab, I personally talked to the neighbor and suggested to him to install a root barrier to block the roots further grow into my property, to protect the slab, and the pavers on adjacent walkway as well. The neighbor’s response was that my shed was an illegal structure, then he left. Since the neighbor refused to cooperate to resolve his roots issue, I did a self-help. I bought a bag of rock salt from ACE, then put some salts on top of the raised paver around slab and tried to kill these roots. About six months later, I noticed the encroached roots further grown into adjacent walkway and raised a few more pavers on walkway.
    In the winter of 2020, I spread the more rock salt onto these raised pavers on walkway and hoped that these rock salt would kill the roots underneath, because the rainy season was coming and these rock salt could be completely melted by rainwater. From April to October in 2021, my house was fully occupied by the guests from Airbnb, and I didn’t go to storage shed and was not aware of the condition of the walkway until I was tripped, fell, and injured on 10/29/21.
    After I tripped, fell, and injured on 10/29/21, I realized that these roots didn’t get killed by the salts and continue to grow during the summer of 2021. My husband called a contractor nearby and tried to have him fix these uplifted pavers, but the contractor didn’t call back. Finally, I took 2-3 pieces of 600 mg Ibuprofen to control the terrible pain on my back and legs, then used a few garden tools to dig out the paver tripped me. I found these roots underneath the pavers didn’t get killed by salt probably due to the size of the roots. I took a picture of them, and cut them off, then put the pavers back, so we can safely walk on the walkway.
    On 11/02/21, my husband hired a local tree serve company to inspect the accident site and provide us with a professional opinion on how to deal with this frightened tree roots from that neighbor’s tree.
    The tree service company provided us with a written report stating that the neighbor’s tree roots had been destroying our walkway and would further affect the nearby structure such as block the storm drains and flood the crawl space of our house where the plumping system is located. The tree company recommended that the neighbor should be removed before the raining season.
    I placed a copy of the report into neighbor’s mailbox and asked him to remove that tree ASAP since it created hazardous living condition to us. The neighbor refused to remove that tree and argued again that our storage shed was an illegal structure (we didn’t apply a permit, because we moved from MA where the city didn’t require a permit). I waited for five weeks after the accident and didn’t get neighbor’s answer whether he was going to remove the tree or not, so I gave him two weeks to remove that tree, otherwise, I would go to the county court and seek for injunctive relief. The neighbor eventually removed the tree in December 2021
    I suffered serious body injury from the fall accident on 10/29/21. I suffered torn meniscus on both knees with one knee complicated with torn PCL (posterior cruciate ligament injury), and a spinal disc herniation and spondylolisthesis between L4 and L5. I had a surgery on my left knee to remove debris of torn meniscus on 03/09/22 followed by two months physical therapy. I also had a nerve root epidural steroid injection on 01/27/22 followed by two months physical therapy to treat my back pain caused from the injuries. I will have another epidural injection by next month. My medical bills now are over $64,000.00 and will be increased by ongoing treatments.
    After I read the MRI reports for injuries on knees and back on 12/16/212021, I retained an attorney in San Mateo. This attorney didn’t have much knowledge on injury caused by tree roots and decided to drop. I am looking for a new attorney to take over of my case.

  3. Interesting and informative article. I like the way you write. I’m going to look for more posts by you.

  4. Hi JUDD MATSUNAGA,
    Thank you for this excellent information. I live in San Pedro, CA. I have very nice ocean view from my house, but the tree from my backyard neigbor block my view now. He has about 10 trees 15-20 feet tall along the property line. I try to speak to the neigbor to get his permission on trimming trees on my own cost, but he does not agree. His reason is to have better privacy. His tall trees blocking my ocean view has devalued my property. This creates my issue when I want to sell or rent the house. What can I do now?

    Appreciate your advise. Thank you very much

  5. It amazes me the laws that allow inconsiderate homeowners who lack thoughtfulness and foresight to plant oversized trees -best suited to a park than a modest home lot -and get away with not having to trim them back from over growing their neighbors property lines. This puts a huge burden on the homeowner who’s property is encroached by one and possibly many trees & hedges. As a homeowner who does not have a gardener, it is on me to constantly trim my thoughtless neighbors overgrowth. It is me who has to cut & squeeze the branches into a trash can and carry it to the curb. It is me who has to constantly rake the leaves and sharp seed pod debris off my gravel and patio. I have 4 of my own trees, semi-dwarf variety, planted in the center area of my yard, well away from property lines and fences and rooftops. I have low shrubs & flowers, not trees, at the fence line, and my neighbors will never have to lift a finger or pay anyone to maintain any overgrowth from my property. I resent all the work my inconsiderate neighbors make for me because they put large trees on the property perimeter, knowing full well it will grow tall and spread a wide canopy. I planted my yard thoughtfully, to minimize the work I would need to keep it up…only for the courts and neighbors to force upon me what should be their maintenance and cost. It’s appalling the owners of these trees who think it is okay to burden their neighbor with their ill conceived garden, and then get upset and offended when their neighbors become fed up with growth into their property and the constant maintenance it takes and costs.

  6. It amazes me the laws that allow inconsiderate homeowners who lack thoughtfulness and foresight to plant oversized trees -best suited to a park than a modest home lot -and get away with not having to trim them back from over growing their neighbors property lines. This puts a huge burden on the homeowner who’s property is encroached by one and possibly many trees & hedges. As a homeowner who does not have a gardener, it is on me to constantly trim my thoughtless neighbors overgrowth. It is me who has to cut & squeeze the branches into a trash can and carry it to the curb. It is me who has to constantly rake the leaves and sharp seed pod debris off my gravel and patio. I have 4 of my own trees, semi-dwarf variety, planted in the center area of my yard, well away from property lines and fences and rooftops. I have low shrubs & flowers, not trees, at the fence line, and my neighbors will never have to lift a finger or pay anyone to maintain any overgrowth from my property. I resent all the work my inconsiderate neighbors make for me because they put large trees on the property perimeter, knowing full well it will grow tall and spread a wide canopy. I planted my yard thoughtfully, to minimize the work I would need to keep it up…only for the courts and neighbors to force upon me what should be their maintenance and cost. It’s appalling the owners of these trees who think it is okay to burden their neighbor with their ill conceived garden, and then get upset and offended when their neighbors become fed up with growth into their property and the constant maintenance it takes and costs.

  7. The removal of stumps is something AG Tree Services Ltd have a great deal of experience in carrying out. Whether it is digging out smaller stumps or grinding out large stumps (the largest was over 2 meters in diameter) we can offer advice and quotations to suit your needs. The price is largely dependent on variable factors such as the diameter and height of the stump, the stage of decay of the wood, the likelihood of foreign bodies in the stump and surrounding soil and access for the grinder.
    Thanks

  8. In other words, too bad for us when you have a rude neighbor who doesn’t take care of their property. California is notorious for allowing assholes to live as if they are the only people who live on earth and courts won’t do anything about it. Good luck, I too have a rude neighbor.

  9. Your tree surgeon may also remove crossing branches; these can rub against each other in the wind and cause more damage to the tree.Other issues addressed by pruning including removing weak crotches to help prevent them splitting apart; again causing damage to the tree. It is also important to remove one branch at the top of the tree if two are growing up together. This can split the top of the tree and several weaken its ability to deal with storms. Removing one leaves the other to be dominant; maintaining the strength of the tree.Pruning is also essential to ensure the shape of the tree remains good and it does not become a hazard to other people; such as removing a low branch that sticks out of your property and could injure a passerby.
    Thanks.

  10. I have owned my home for 14 years and I just found out that my fence over 50 years wasn’t on the correct property line. Inside my fence I have a 30 year old eucalyptus tree, which I have maintained. The new owner of the property wants to take down the tree. After all these years of maintaining it, is the tree mine or does it belong to the new owner. If it is mine can I refuse to have it taken down?
    Thank you

  11. When I was at work my neighbor botched my pine trees that where not hanging on his side and then threw all the branches to my side of the fence. The City where I live does not enforce tree branches hanging over to the other side or any other issue related to trees but I feel very upset because throwing the trash in my backyard adds insult to injury, so the neighbor can do whatever to my property and I am just to watch?

  12. Hi JUDD MATSUNAGA ,
    Your tree surgeon may also remove crossing branches; these can rub against each other in the wind and cause more damage to the tree.Other issues addressed by pruning including removing weak crotches to help prevent them splitting apart; again causing damage to the tree. It is also important to remove one branch at the top of the tree if two are growing up together. This can split the top of the tree and several weaken its ability to deal with storms. Removing one leaves the other to be dominant; maintaining the strength of the tree.Pruning is also essential to ensure the shape of the tree remains good and it does not become a hazard to other people; such as removing a low branch that sticks out of your property and could injure a passerby.
    Thanks.

  13. All the above questions it would seem are not responded to. I’d like answers. A branch from a very tall pine tree sheds debris all over my entrance walkway and on my plants — a huge amount of it. My question is whether my neighbor has any responsibility to trim that branch. It would not hurt the tree and I can see that I have the authority to cut the branch but I’d rather my neighbor has a responsibility to pay for it.

    On the other side of my house, there’s another neighbor whose perhaps 100-foot high row of ficus bends over my pool and deck. Previous owners have kept them trimmed but this one does not. They drop little sharp pellets so you can’t walk barefoot around my pool, and a feathery substance that the skimmer doesn’t pick up coats the pool. Does my neighbor have any responsibility to trim those tree-bushes?

  14. Dear Mr. JUDD MATSUNAGA
    Thank you for the information about tree law in California. But my neighbor has several very tall trees (about 10 trees, 50 feet tall) along the border and have extended beyond required set back of the building. He refused to let me trim them to the normal 8 to 10 feet tall, while his property is already 7 feet above my property. Cutting branched did not help when they are so tall and growing my way.
    I have to clean up tons of their debris 8 months long each year, while I do not have any tree there. This cost me at age of 75 lots of physical work and financial damage.
    Last year I have pushed part of the debris back to his property. It was so much that he put a sign with my name on it “Do not enter my property !”
    If he does not want to have his own mess, why should I?
    What legal procedure can I take to defend my right and recover my physical and financial damage?
    please reply to my e-mail address.
    Thank you

  15. if the neighbors roots are lifting my concrete walkway do I have any recourse. They are now “starting” to damage my foundation.

  16. What if the tree hanging over our property is covered in worms and they are now coming into our yard? He refuses to prune the tree, I am worried about my plants including 100 cymbidium orchid pots!

  17. What about a tree that knocks the fence down. Now it’s time to put up another fence. I don’t want to put one up that the growth of this huge tree will knock down again. I don’t want to tour the fence on my side of the tree thus losing some of my property. Nor do I want it on their side making me responsible for continued damage the tree does. What can be done?

  18. What about tree branches hanging over a private road we all share. I can;t get large trucks up to my house because neighbors refuse to trim their trees and branches are hanging over – some as low as 6 feet. They say its fine with them if I pay for it. So aggravating.

  19. what constitutes “planted in a row”? 2 or more 3? along the property line. I have had a heavy thick off shoot of a eucalyptus in excess of 200 feet tall and there are 3 along the driveway fall across the driveway and the city fire department came to remove it from the roof and door to the next door house on the same land.
    The owner of the tree said hes not going to do anything about it and refuses to trim them back.

  20. Thank you for this excellent summation of sadly common “neighborly” issues! Given California’s explosive development despite its impact on water supply, traffic and over all community quality of life, it is nice to know in one small area the state is trying to offset the destruction to the environment. The value of large, healthy trees can never be under estimated. In southern California the drought is causing a shocking die off of older large trees. Those that have managed to survive the climate change are all the more precisous. A large tree that is surviving during these lean rain years simply can not be replaced with another tree. Shallow roots and small trunks make young trees more vulnerable to drought forcing the use of more water to ensure their survival. It’s reassuring to have a government aware of these facts. If only the general population could be equally informed!