If My Tree Falls and Hits My Neighbor's House, am I Legally Responsible?
If my tree falls and hits my neighbor's house, am I responsible in Georgia? Let's assume you have been eyeballing that tree in your front yard for a month now and you are beginning to suspect that it is rotting. Have you stayed up at night worrying about it hurting someone or something and wondering what your legal responsibilities are?
In Georgia, the owner of a tree is liable for injuries from a falling tree only if he knew or reasonably should have known the tree was diseased, decayed or otherwise constituted a dangerous condition. In other words, if you did not have a reason to know it was diseased (full leaves, looks fine) then it is not your fault if something happens. If you should have known, you had better have good homeowner's insurance coverage.
One Court put it this way: "A landowner who knows that a tree on his property is decayed and may fall and damage the property of an adjoining landowner is under a duty to eliminate the danger.” But a landowner does not have a duty to consistently and constantly check all trees on his property for nonvisible rot; 'the manifestation of decay must be visible, apparent, and patent.'” Cornett v. Agee, 143 Ga.App. 55, 57 (1977).
The law can be pretty boring but the above case serves as a nice reminder that most judges are not boneheads. When discussing whether the landowner could figure out the tree might fall based upon visible rot, the Court even discussed the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The resulting rule: you do not have to constantly patrol your property inspecting each tree with a telescope, but if it looks like trouble, cut it down.
"This is in accord with what is called one of the most important and best-proved laws in science, "The Second Law of Thermodynamics," or energy decay. The court can take judicial notice of anything in the scientific world scientifically provable. Rome R. &c. Co. v. Keel, 3 Ga. App. 769 (60 SE 468). 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. See, "In the Game of Energy and Thermodynamics You Can't Even Break Even," by Isaac Asimov, Journal of the Smithsonian Institute (June, 1970), p. 6-8. This means while there is energy being converted, none is created or destroyed (Law of Thermodynamics Number One) nevertheless everything tends toward decay; for example, a tree decaying, which is an increase of entropy or uselessness. We are specifically limiting liability in this case to patent visible decay and not the normal usual latent micro-non-visible 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."
If there is no evidence in a case upon which a jury could side with the plaintiff and find that the tree was visibly detiorating, then the case gets thrown out of court on a Motion. See Wade v. Howard 232 Ga.App. 55 (1998). Although our primary practice is as auto accident attorneys in Atlanta, we also deal with these unusual liability cases from time to time. The safest course is to act as soon as you have a doubt about the health of the tree.