5 On Your Side

If a tree falls on your house, who is responsible?

Posted March 2, 2010 5:20 p.m. EST
Updated March 4, 2010 10:05 a.m. EST

— During a recent wind storm, a 70-foot tall tree fell onto Mike Walters’ home in Cary.

“It went through my master bedroom wall and basically landed on my bed, right where my wife sleeps,” he said.

The tree fell from property owned by the local homeowners association.

Walters sought help from the HOA, only to be referred to an insurance company that denied his claim.

The homeowners association said Walters did not tell them he was concerned about the tree. Walters said he wasn’t concerned about it because he never thought the seemingly healthy, green tree was going to fall.

Under state law, if a healthy tree that does not appear to be a danger falls, the person who sustains the damage has to pay for it, because it is considered an act of nature.

The owner of an obviously dead or dying tree, one that a reasonable person would presume is a risk, can be held responsible for damage caused when it falls if he is aware of that potential.

Anyone who sees a tree that may be in danger of falling should take photos and notify the property owner by certified letter immediately. This will help if the tree does fall and damage property. The letter and photos will help prove the property owners were aware and should have taken action.

Without documentation, property owners can assert they were not aware their tree was in bad shape, and can be absolved of responsibility.

Knowing the law doesn't make Walters any happier about his damage, but it does change the way he looks at trees.

“I’m gonna be proactive. I'm gonna let everybody know,” he said. “If it comes down on your house and you haven't told them, then they're not gonna help you.”

Ideally, experts say, it is best to work something out with your neighbor before something like this happens.

If that doesn't work, you generally can't make your neighbor take down a potentially dangerous tree in advance.

People should check with their local homeowners association or town to find out what its rules are concerning potentially dangerous trees.