Injured by Falling Tree – Can I Sue?

Property Owner’s Duty to Inspect
Under California law, property owners have a duty to inspect their trees to determine if they are healthy or hazardous, and remove branches or the tree itself if it poses a hazard. The legal test is whether the property owner knew or should have known that a tree posed a hazard. If the answer is yes, and the property owner fails to act, then the property owner is legally liable for injuries or damage that result from the falling tree or tree branch. Such damage can include physical injuries, lost wages, and property damage, e.g., damage to your car, house, etc.
Let’s say you notice that a tree on your property looks unhealthy. You call out an arborist, who tells you that the tree is diseased and in danger of falling in strong winds. If you do nothing about it, and the tree does fall and injure someone, then you will likely be on the hook for the person’s injuries.
Another scenario: let’s say a tree on your property is diseased, but looks fine. You have no reason to suspect that there is anything wrong with the tree. If a branch falls off the tree and injures someone, you will likely not be liable for the injuries.
Whether the property owner should have foreseen the potential for harm depends on the type of property involved. If the property involves a large and remote tract of heavily wooded land, then the owner could not reasonably be expected to maintain the trees on the property and to remove dead branches from them. However, if the property involves a residential lot, harm to others may be more foreseeable, which increases the owner’s duty to maintain the trees.
Some trees varieties are more likely to be hazardous because of their top-heavy growth and shallow roots. But even stable tree varieties can become hazardous due to improper pruning. Some pruning techniques can make a tree structurally unsound and more likely to fall:
• Topping a tree – cutting the top off, usually for increased light or view
• Lollipopping – cutting the lower branches and leaving a tuft of growth at the top
• Lion-tailing – trimming the inner branches to leave growth on the ends
An arborist’s inspection of the tree or branch right after the accident may help strengthen your case. The arborist can determine not only whether the tree was improperly pruned but also what condition it was in prior to the fall, which will help establish whether the property owner should have known the tree posed a danger.
If you or someone you care about has been injured by a falling tree, you should consult with a personal injury attorney to learn your rights.