Will fixing something I'm not legally bound to fix set a legal precedent with my neighbors?
October 16, 2007 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Tree branch fell on next-door neighbor's house. He has asked me to take care of it.

This occurred in Georgia. The branch was fairly large, but there is no major damage to their house. This happened several weeks ago and only in the past week has the neighbor asked me to do something about it, saying he had "talked to the city and they said it was your responsibility".

I had previously checked and what I can gather, according to Georgia law, the neighbor is responsible for whatever occurs on their property, unless they asked us to fix something in writing beforehand, which they did not.

But the neighbor is rather poor and I feel somewhat morally responsible. If I go ahead and have the branch removed, does that set a precedent which implies I'm responsible for any other branches that fall on their or other houses (it's a big tree, that has branches over several properties.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're being taken for a ride. Get an agreement in writing first making it clear that you're not responsible for any damage to the house that you uncover or cause, and you're not in the future responsible for anything on his property. And that's if you really want to clean it up. (Which I wouldn't do, although I might offer to help, or bring tools, or something, once we'd made the responsibility crystal clear.)

Unless there's something you're not telling us, I don't understand why your neighbor would think that a tree in his yard, falling on his house, would somehow be your responsibility. That's bordering on being ridiculous.

Was the tree in your yard? If that's the case than you might have some liability, but usually (based on my falling-tree experiences) only if the tree was diseased or if there was some reason you knew or should have known that it was a hazard. Healthy trees that fall or blow down are usually considered 'acts of God' and the owner is typically not responsible (example: last year in VA, I had a tree fall onto my car; since the tree was healthy, the landlord wasn't responsible for it, and my car insurance paid instead).

I know this is never the answer that you want to hear, but I think you should consult a lawyer (or, perhaps your homeowners' insurance carrier, since they're going to be the ones paying out if you get sued); you may be getting yourself into a bad place if you do anything that could be construed as taking responsibility for the tree.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:03 PM on October 16, 2007

Thorny, thorny problem with endless vicissitudes of local variation and case law.

That's a sentence fragment that you should read as: get a lawyer.
posted by dhartung at 8:03 PM on October 16, 2007

Unless there's something you're not telling us, I don't understand why your neighbor would think that a tree in his yard, falling on his house, would somehow be your responsibility.

I imagine the tree is in the poster's yard.
posted by frobozz at 8:13 PM on October 16, 2007

Here's an interesting article I found, actually written by a lawyer in Minnesota, but mentioning a case from Georgia:
This law tells us that all in the universe, trees, human beings, plants, animals, buildings, and all else are headed downward from complexity to simplicity toward decay, deterioration, decadence, and death. Everything heads towards decay; for example, a tree decaying, which is an increase of entropy, or uselessness. We are specifically limiting liability to patent, visible decay, and not the normal, usual, latent, micro-nonvisible, accumulative decay. In other words, there is no duty to consistently and constantly check all pine trees for non-visible rot, as the manifestation of decay must be visible, apparent, and patent so that one could be aware that high winds might combine with visible rot and cause damage.
(Emphasis mine.)

That's setting a reasonably high bar for negligence in tree-damage cases, so I think you may not be responsible. But again, you're definitely well into consult-a-lawyer territory. It may be worth cleaning up the fallen limb to avoid going to court over this, but only if by doing so you can get the neighbor to agree in writing that you're not responsible. (Probably a fairly standard hold-harmless agreement, but not something you want to do yourself.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:19 PM on October 16, 2007

Consider telling your neighbor this: "Call your insurance company, and have them take care of it; if they need to talk to my insurance company, have them call me."

Their agent/adjuster will either (a) take care of it, (b) take care of it and then call you to have your insurance reimburse them, or (c) declare it an act of God.

In any event, this puts you in the position of trying to be helpful without getting directly involved. Your neighbor gets the branch off his house, and you don't look like a jerk.
posted by jknecht at 8:23 PM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Help him with the branch. Have him sign something that says that you are not responsible for that or any other branch on his property, and then get rid of the branch.

Regardless of what Georgia law is, he will believe the agreement that he has signed is binding. It is why laundromats post signs that say they are not liable if your clothes catch fire (of course they are) and grocery stores put up signs in parking lots that say they cannot be held liable for damage caused by shopping carts (of course they can be). People read the signs and believe them. Therefore, they never file suit in the first place. It saves the laundromats and grocery stores gobs of money over time.

Adapting the same principle here, your neighbor will believe you are not responsible in the future, whether you are or not. You get to feel good for helping your neighbor, your neighbor gets to have the branch removed, and you get to have a little deterrent in place for the future.
posted by flarbuse at 8:44 PM on October 16, 2007

Regardless of what Georgia law is, he will believe the agreement that he has signed is binding.

That kind of advice is not helpful. anonymous, you need to chat with a lawyer. Most lawyers will offer a free first consultation over the phone; just explain the situation and ask where you should go from there, including questions about how you can help without opening yourself to liability, if you're inclined to be the helpful good neighbor. Ask friends and co-workers for a recommendation if you have to, but get a good lawyer who'll talk to you about your options.
posted by mediareport at 8:53 PM on October 16, 2007

Does he have homeowner's insurance? If so, his policy should cover it. It's not technically your responsibility unless you can be proven negligent (or malicious).

Since you know that he's poor, however, helping him take care of his deductible might be a really nice goodwill gesture.
posted by mewithoutyou at 9:20 PM on October 16, 2007

The way it works in California, I'm required to maintain my trees. If a branch falls on my neighbor's property because I've been negligent, I'm wholly responsible. If the branch breaks because of a storm or other "act of God," the law says I'm in the clear.

You do need to find out what Georgia law says about the matter. You can go to the library and look up the statute -- ask the librarian if you'd like help investigating neighbor law for your state.

If you find out that the branch is your neighbor's problem and you still want to help him remove it, tell him what you found out -- and be ready to show him a highlighted copy of the statute. Then tell him you still feel badly about it, and would like to remove the branch as a favor to him -- because it's the neighborly thing to do, or because you know he would do the same for you if your roles were reversed. Be very gracious about it; you have everything to gain by letting him save face.
posted by wryly at 10:39 PM on October 16, 2007

I'm sorry, but I can't help myself... what the hell kind of neighbor are you, anyway? What kind do you *want* to be?

If a branch fell off *your* tree, onto *his* house, suck it up and deal with it, already. If there's little damage and if you're able-bodied, do what you can to help yourself. If there's serious damage happened, then your neighbor's homeowner's policy will likely cover most of it... offer to pay his deductable. It's the very least you can do. If he doesn't have coverage, then figure out what it'll cost to fix things, and make it right.

Will lending a hand set a precedent? I sure hope so... maybe one that says, "In this neighborhood we take care of each other."

And for all you consult-a-lawyer-to-see-how-to-weasel-out-of-things types... I'm embarrassed for you. Every one.
posted by deCadmus at 10:52 PM on October 16, 2007

I might also consult an arborist to get some of the branches of the tree trimmed so as to avoid this problem in the future. Also it will be better for the tree.

Arborist. The things you learn from watching This Old House.
posted by softlord at 5:40 AM on October 17, 2007

You are lucky it didn't do any damage. If you want to get on his bad side he could claim that the branch did damage to his house and sue you or file a claim against you. Take the easy road out and clear the branch and also hire a tree-cutter to trim any dead branches which may cause future problems.

House damages could cost you many thousand dollars as opposed to a few hundred dollars to hire a tree cutter.
posted by JJ86 at 5:55 AM on October 17, 2007

The OP's neighbor doesn't seem to be asking for help, but rather trying to assign responsibility to anyone who isn't [the OPs neighbor]. In that case my first stop would definitely be a lawyer (nothing like nipping confused ideas about who's really responsible in the bud) and my second stop would be, like softlord said, an arborist so that you can be sure that none of the trees on your property present a liability hazard on your part.

You are ten thousand times right in thinking that even decent neighbors can become hellish when they're convinced that you owe them something based on how you were previously a nice person and helped them out.
posted by anaelith at 6:09 AM on October 17, 2007

daCadmus beat me to it. I'm a straight line kind of guy and I can't help thinking just heading over with a saw and some muscle, you'd have the tree limb cleared in far less time than it would take to consult a lawyer, research statutes and consider insurance fine print ... not to mention the time dealing with years of dirty looks from a neighbor. I had a tree fall from my property and crush a portion of a neighbors fence. Worse still, I didn't even notice it for a few days. I hiked my butt over there, apologized and offered to rebuild or pay to rebuild the fence, their choice. They asked me to rebuild it. It took about three hours. I got some exercise and some beer and life is peachy. As far a setting a precedent, gees, how many limbs you got anyway? Is this really going to happen over and over? I lived in two homes, both in the woods, for 25 years and it's happened once for me. Oh, and I, too, am a little chagrinned by the 'call-a-lawyer' reaction as anything but a last resort response.
posted by lpsguy at 6:09 AM on October 17, 2007

Well, if you live in a hurricane area you might wanna look up the applicable laws.

Just sayin'.
posted by konolia at 6:41 AM on October 17, 2007

follow-up from the OP

To be clear, I would like to fix this myself and am simply waiting for a
call back from the Arborist to see how much it would cost. I would have
sawed it off myself, but it's a huge two story house, in a tricky
position, so it seems like the pros should handle it.

Another limb has fallen off the tree, about six months ago, but it
struck my house, damaging the gutter slightly. At that point we had
called the Arborist to take care of other large limbs hanging near or
over our house. The arborist told us it was a pecan tree and that we
were under no obligation whatsoever, by Georgia law, to trim or take
care of limbs that cross over to other properties. Those property owners
have to deal with that.

I'm trying to do the right thing here, as I feel morally responsible,
was just wondering about legal issues since this is the second limb that
has fallen off in year and there are other limbs over several other
properties (big fucking tree). Clearly, I need to talk to a lawyer to
answer these questions.
posted by jessamyn at 6:54 AM on October 17, 2007

is the tree on your property? if not, why on EARTH would you take care of it in any way besides being a helpful and friendly neighbor?

i mean, if he's out there sawing it apart by himself, you should totally go out and help chop it up if you're friendly and neighborly (note that you don't have to be).

but if he asked you to just like, pay for a dude to come take care of it, why would you? not your problem.

now, if the tree is on your property, you probably have some other legal responsibility...
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:12 AM on October 17, 2007

Misanthro... I'm pretty sure the tree is on the OP's land. Otherwise none of this makes any sense.

Occam's razor and all...
posted by craven_morhead at 12:08 PM on October 17, 2007

And for all you consult-a-lawyer-to-see-how-to-weasel-out-of-things types

What about us consult-a-lawyer-to-see-how-to-best-help types?
posted by mediareport at 9:16 PM on October 17, 2007

« Older Help me ace an interview.   |   Um, sure, I guess I can support 30 macs... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.