This guy is whacked!
December 21, 2010 9:14 AM   Subscribe

A guy chopped down some of my trees. He did it without an OK. Now he wants $1400. Help me figure my next step.

OK, here's the scenario:

~ We have a mountain summer cabin with some land.
~ Some pine beetle trees were removed and "slash piles" left behind.
~ Someone referred "Sam" to me to remove them. He came up, looked it over, and gave me a price of $400ish. I am not the actual owner of the cabin (split between my cousins, and my mom), so I told him I'd have to consult with the others first.
~ Then we found some beetle infested trees (3) in a different spot on the land. They should be removed. So I had him back to look at them and give me a quote. He never provided a quote or contract.
~ At the end of the summer (we're there on weekends) I walked back and discovered all the slash piles had been removed. I never gave an OK for this, never signed any type of work order or contract, and had not resolved how we would proceed with my cousins and mom (but in truth, we needed them gone, and I would have paid his price).
~ I didn't do anything, expecting to hear from him. Then, I get an invoice in the mail, stating he has removed 10 TREES from the land, and asking for $1400 total.
~ Add to that, he had to cut across a corner of the neighbor's land to get in there. I have not checked out the damage yet, but I'll bet it's tracked up. I had told him we'd need permission from the neighbor.
~ I NEVER gave an OK, told him several times I had to check with owners. He provided no price, and no contract, and took down 7 more trees than were discussed.
~ I have not contacted him yet, but am preparing to do so.

You may or may not be a lawyer.... but are there steps I should take in preparation for whatever conflict is ahead? In essence, he trespassed on our land, and cut our trees... no OK, no permission, nothing.

posted by ecorrocio to Law & Government (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Did you call the local police?
posted by jerseygirl at 9:16 AM on December 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

There was no contract either written or verbal for this work. He's got no case unless he can convince a small claims judge that you gave him verbal permission to go ahead and that a price was agreed to.
posted by inturnaround at 9:17 AM on December 21, 2010

If there is no contract, then you are not obliged to pay.

However, to be reasonable, I would first:

a. find out why he removed 10 trees. Were there beetles in all of them?
b. find out independently what's a reasonable price for removing 10 trees and slash piles
c. find out what your relatives are willing to kick in
d. find out if your neighbor is really steamed up about the guy cutting across his land

Then you can make the guy a reasonable offer. You are entitled to stiff him, but it will probably all go a lot smoother if you can call him up and say, "You did all this without asking, but assuming you acted in good faith, I can offer you $800, because I'm going to have to pay my neighbor $250 for the part of his land you ripped up." If you're offering $800 without a fight, then he may choose to take the $800 rather than go after you and risk not getting paid at all.

Always assume good faith until you have solid information otherwise. Talk to the guy and listen to him before deciding on what to do.
posted by musofire at 9:21 AM on December 21, 2010 [16 favorites]

On a side note, 1400 bucks to cut and remove ten trees is a great deal! If there were beetles in all of them, you may have caught yourself a pretty good deal there, by accident... I'd be more inclined to lean in musofire's direction rather than an all out "you ain't gettin a dime" approach..
posted by Glendale at 9:26 AM on December 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

If there were beetles in all of them

And if there weren't beetles in all of them, this guy has managed to submit an invoice for the privilege of logging someone else's land.
posted by endless_forms at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

"You did all this without asking, but assuming you acted in good faith, I can offer you $800, because I'm going to have to pay my neighbor $250 for the part of his land you ripped up."

I belong to the school of thought that you should NEVER EVER pay someone who is scamming you. Doing work you did not ask him to do is scamming you. You are rewarding him and enabling his scam if you pay him anything.

On a side note, 1400 bucks to cut and remove ten trees is a great deal! If there were beetles in all of them, you may have caught yourself a pretty good deal there, by accident... I'd be more inclined to lean in musofire's direction rather than an all out "you ain't gettin a dime" approach..

I would say you are getting a MUCH BETTER deal if you get the work for free. Which is all that you should pay him since he is attempting to scam you.
posted by jayder at 9:37 AM on December 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

If you want to be reasonable, pay the guy $400 for removing the slash piles (minus any payment you might have to make to your neighbour for damage to his land). Make it a condition of the payment that he abandon any further claims related to the other trees.

Unless the trees that were removed needed to be taken down very carefully (i.e. they were near buildings, power lines, or something), then $1000 for ten trees sounds like a rip-off (but maybe that's reasonable where you live). Assuming a person could drive their truck close to the trees, you could probably have them down and gone for free by offering them as firewood (though you'd still have to deal with a bit of slash if you don't want to just let it rot).
posted by ssg at 9:37 AM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for everything so far... here's some additional info:

~ Possible there were beetles in the other trees he took down, but on the flip-side, there are beetle trees all the hell over the place up there, and I'm not a real believer that we can mitigate them all. Even the forest service isn't trying.
~ He got real preachy with us about the beetle trees having to come out, and how we were not really doing our part in the area. Only one neighbor is doing much, so we're not out of ordinary.

Musofire, I agree, and do think it would be good to arrive at a compromise solution. It's a small community up there, and there are reasons to work with folks. All the same, the guy's kinda odd -- something I realized up front -- and I am pissed about him doing all this without any OK.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:38 AM on December 21, 2010

Oh, and reading between the lines of your question, it sounds like you and your family are "city folk" that this guy thinks he can intimidate and take advantage of. That particular attitude just magnifies the egregiousness of what he has done and would lead me, if I were you, to dig in my heels and not pay him a goddamned cent.
posted by jayder at 9:39 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: ssg: then $1000 for ten trees sounds like a rip-off (but maybe that's reasonable where you live).

Oh, it's a pretty good price. These are big trees. Lodgepole pines 10+ inches in diameter. A lot of cutting and hauling involved. I don't doubt the guy put in a lot of work. I just didn't ask him to.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:40 AM on December 21, 2010

If this is in the US (sounds like), you can probably sue HIM for removing your trees without consent. And boy-howdy are those nasty cases, because people are attached to their trees!

Not that that's necessarily the best way to proceed. But boy would I not be intimidated into paying him a cent knowing that I could sue him for compensation for the destroyed trees.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:41 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would not pay him anything. How do you know there were beatles in the trees and he didnt cut them down for logging purposes?

IF you give him money now he will continue to do it.

Call the police.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:43 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the logging point: if the trees are newly infested (e.g. not long dead) the lumber is usable, and, more to the point, salable. The old dead stuff is still good and sold widely for firewood, but the lumber yards can actually use the lumber from beetle infested trees, if they are within a year or so of the initial infestation.

I find it entirely not ok that he did this. It would be one thing if he had removed the three demonstrably beetle-killed trees and the slash piles, but he went out entirely on his own initiative and cut down seven other trees!

Start by calling him on the phone. Express your shock that he proceeded with any work without your say-so, and ask why he did it. If you're not local, can you also call the neighbor and ask about it? If I were you, I'd tell him exactly what you told us. If he is local, he can check it out and report back, and may be more understanding since you didn't knowingly get work done that impacted his property without talking to him.

After all the facts are in, I'd go about deciding what to do. In your case, I would pay no more than the initial 3 trees and the slash piles should have cost. It was highly inappropriate (and illegal!) for the contractor to act without the owners' consent.
posted by arnicae at 9:43 AM on December 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm city folk myself, so I'm not sure what sort of damage beetles in trees can do. Did he help to stop a bigger problem, and thus felt it was necessary to proceed? $1400 to take down 10 trees is not really that expensive when you factor it out, but it's also possible that he removed a problem that did not exist. All that said, if you didn't ever make a deal, I don't believe you owe him a cent. He can sue you if he wants, and then a judge can tell him the exact same thing.
posted by Gilbert at 9:46 AM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: On use of beetle infested logs... they have to be dried properly before they can be used to ensure all the beetles are out. Otherwise you risk just spreading more beetles around. They go to a sort yard, and they have a big burner thing there.

The lumber is saleable though.

On city folk... well I guess we are. We've been doing summers up there since 1937, but we're sure not local. Neither is he during the winter.

I would agree with those of you who say he's scamming... and will continue to do so if enabled. I think this may be part of his "MO". Non resident land owners are probably pretty inclined to "just pay the guy". Especially if he pulls out the you-must-mitigate guilt trip.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:53 AM on December 21, 2010

Pine beetles are a big problem around here. Every so often, someone gets beetles, doesn't take care of them, and it spreads to their neighbors. So when someone gets beetles, there's a lot of pressure to take care of them right away--but if they don't, you have to go through the city, have the city fine them or require them to have the trees removed, or the city will actually remove them and charge the owner. This is not a fast process, and the owner incurs a huge penalty (here, beetle infested trees cost $200-$300 to remove EACH).

So I wonder if your wayward contractor is going to tell you that, since he didn't hear from you, it was getting URGENT and he HAD TO DO IT or the gov't was going to come down on you hard. I mention this so you can be prepared for him to tell you he was SAVING you money and ACTING IN YOUR INTEREST and gosh, your neighbors would have complained if you hadn't acted, and you'd have been in for more expensive removal and fines and lions and tigers and bears, oh my! And it would have spread to other trees and you'd have had to pay even more!

Except the thing is, if he thought it was urgent and needed to be done, what he should have done was contact you and get permission. Going ahead, no matter how he might have thought he was doing you a favor (if he tries that tack) was still wrong.

And you can go ahead and investigate, before contacting him, what the local gov't does in case of uncontrolled pine beetle infestation. Do they, in fact, care? Does it take them a year and a half to act? Do they assess fines, or do they just come remove the trees at your cost (and what would the cost be, anyway)? Knowing in advance what would have happened if you had done nothing at all might be helpful, when you contact him.
posted by galadriel at 10:07 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

After you mentioned his lecture about the beetle trees, my first thought was that he is some self-righteous tree saving hero. The whole thing about no one doing their part, they have to be removed, etc., makes it sound like he is taking this into his own hands because "you all" aren't serious about fixing the problem.

I'm still in the camp that you don't pay a scammer a penny, and I still think it is likely he could be a scammer, but have you considered the possibility he is just a totally nutty tree crusader trying to make a point?
posted by _DB_ at 10:13 AM on December 21, 2010

As a long-time summer person, I'm just going to remind you that fighting him on this may start a feud that will make whatever part of your lives you spend there shitty for decades. Before taking action, find out from someone besides the person who referred you whether "Sam" is a well-loved local character, or a well-known local scammer.
posted by nicwolff at 10:25 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Galadriel: This is in/near national forest land near Rocky Mountain National Park... there is no government involvement in private land. They cannot make anyone mitigate trees. In fact, the problem is so widespread, they are doing nothing on national park and national forest lands (except some long planned fire breaks that have nothing to do with beetles). The problem is contentious, and you will find land owners on a complete continuum from "MUST remove all beetle trees" to "I'm not doing anything".

So far as I know, no neighbor has complained about our land, or any surrounding lands.

An aside... if it takes a government a year and half to act, beetles would have come and gone, and infested other trees. It's a one year cycle.

_DB_: Yes, I think he's a bit of a crusader, but one that's making some pretty good dough on beetle hysteria.
posted by ecorrocio at 10:46 AM on December 21, 2010

Yeah, what nicwolff says. Do you know a local who will give you the straight story? Like, say, the owner of the local general store or hardware store?
posted by zippy at 10:48 AM on December 21, 2010

On a much smaller scale (and in a different legal jurisdiction) the same thing has happened to me. I paid up, but then it was a really, really tiny amount of money and the person concerned didn't imply I had to pay them. I'm also not sure that they were aware that they couldn't just go and cut down and keep my property.

There is no way I'd be prepared to pay out $1400 in a scam. I'd be more inclined to consult a lawyer to check my understanding of the law. And then tell him to go away (in writing).
posted by plonkee at 11:15 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

if it takes a government a year and half to act, beetles would have come and gone, and infested other trees.

The competence, or lack thereof, of my local gov't was only meant as an example :) What's relevant is what happens in your cabin's area. Are you absolutely certain there are no legal repercussions at all if you don't control pine beetles on your land?

Because I'd really, really expect someone who acted without permission to try to pressure you when you contact him, and swear up and down that he was helping you; to claim that you were acting too slowly, and (some terrible fate) would have befallen if he hadn't taken the initiative to help you out. (Whether neighbors have complained or not, whether local gov't was aware of your beetles or not, he can still try to *tell* you that Bad Things were going to happen.)

If you've checked and you know they absolutely *can't*, then you are quite prepared for that argument. But if you don't have relevant legal code handy and he does, you might end up somewhat unprepared or even feeling like maybe he *did* do you a favor. Since he went in without permission, he was not doing you a favor; he was trespassing and stealing your trees and further vandalizing your property and your neighbor's.

It just always helps to be able to counteract any potential arguments that might otherwise blindside you.
posted by galadriel at 11:21 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am a contractor. He is a fool if he does not have a contract, and that puts you in a good position.

Start documenting everything now.

But, you have to come to some agreement with him. Nearly every decent contractor knows how to file a mechanics lien - it is easily to do if you are a licensed contractor. If you blow him off, he will likely file a lien.

If you can not reasonably settle with him - then you need to weigh the expense of a lawyer, and coming to an agreement.
posted by Flood at 11:28 AM on December 21, 2010

"There is no way I'd be prepared to pay out $1400 in a scam. I'd be more inclined to consult a lawyer to check my understanding of the law. And then tell him to go away (in writing)."

That's basically what I was thinking. A lawyer should write the first response to this bloke - or you write it and have a lawyer friend check it over before being sent - so that your initial contact states your position clearly and covers your ass. If you relent down the road and pay him for the work, he'll be lucky. In the meantime, you've made it super clear trespassing without permission, and performing service without permission, is something you take very very seriously.

-Follow the advice to check out this guy's rep around town.

-Contact the local sheriff and strike up a conversation about this. They should know about it, however it turns out. They should know in case it happens to others. They should know in case there is further damage or trespassing to your land. They should know.

On similar another note... I had a crazy elderly neighbor who was all fanatical about white fly infestations... we always thought the white fly schtick she had going was over the top and there was no white fly where she claimed white fly... yadda...yadda... After years of living next door to this woman, we realized she was an awful person on many levels (lying, controlling, scamming, stealth sabotage of her own property and other's to get attention or revenge when she couldn't get her way - she was a piece of work!) We recognized that her "white fly crusading" was a way for her to interfere and disrupt the lives of others. We eventually saw a real white fly infestation, and our neighborhood was NOT infested. This said, all of her ranting left doubts in us for a while there, and lots of people still fall for her routine.

I'm sure the beetle pine thing is serious. But you are correct - there is no excuse for (a) entering your land and executing a job without permission or an agreement, (b) expanding the job and up-charging significantly on the original quote, and (c) crossing your neighbor's property and causing damage.

Just make sure you handle it correctly from a legal and community perspective.
posted by jbenben at 11:53 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would send him a bill for the replacement of 10 trees. With no contract, let him ponder which side will win in small claims court.
posted by dgran at 12:44 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I live in a small community and these things happen. You mention you might want to have some trees trimmed, they are trimmed and you are given a bill. (same thing goes for windows washing, house painting, lawn mowing, fruit picking....) He may have misunderstood and thought he had your verbal authorization. I know you are probably right, but at the same time in a small community these things matter. I would pay him $1400. In the future you need to be really explicit about what you want. I have learned this from experience.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 1:05 PM on December 21, 2010

I had some friends several years ago who had someone trim several trees in their yard. The problem was, they only asked for one to be trimmed. They contacted the Better Business bureau, who negotiated on their behalf. They paid for the original quote, plus a reduced price for the extra work.
posted by annsunny at 1:35 PM on December 21, 2010

Sorry buddy, but I don't pay for work I didn't authorize on a cabin I don't own.

Small town or not, you specifically told him it wasn't your cabin. He wasn't confused that you authorized work.

He may be an opportunist. He may be a same artist. He may be a pine beetle zealot. Whatever he is, he's not getting paid.
posted by 26.2 at 2:14 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your comments! Seems a pretty even split between "Don't pay him" and "Work something out". Curiously, that's the split with my cousins and mom -- the cabin owners.

I'm still not sure which way we'll go. Either way, it looks like hassle ahead. I was going to say the lesson here is make sure you have a contract etc, etc, ... but I was headed that way, and thought my comment of "I have to check with my cousins and mom, who own the cabin, before we do anything" would be enough. So maybe the lesson here is... sometimes funky crap's gonna happen.

Thanks again.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:22 AM on December 22, 2010

I can't believe you guys are even considering paying him for what he did. If I walked into your house while you were gone, and removed some of your possessions and took them to who knows where, and sent you an invoice for my moving services, would you pay me??

[I] thought my comment of "I have to check with my cousins and mom, who own the cabin, before we do anything" would be enough.

Of course it's enough. This is not a misunderstanding. The guy knows EXACTLY what he was doing.

If you pay him a dime it tells him he can get away with pulling this BS.

I was going to say the lesson here is make sure you have a contract etc

Why is the lesson here to make sure you have a contract?? You don't need to have a contract/agreement with anyone else to PREVENT them from starting work on your property. If you made no agreement for him to do this work then he had no right to do it no matter what you discussed, and you have no obligation to pay him a dime period!
posted by Ashley801 at 12:45 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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