Fallen Tree Liability in Georgia

Fallen Tree Liability in Georgia

With intense summer storms, hazardous and fallen tree liability is a huge issue in the state of Georgia. Around here, we call this issue “Tree-Gate” because we receive so many calls and emails from clients who are concerned that a neighbor’s dead tree may fall and do serious damage to their property or injure a loved one.

Tree-Gate boils down to a legal duty of care. You would think that everyone has a duty to avoid exposing their neighbor to unreasonable risk of harm due to the things they do (or fail to do) on their property. However, when it comes to dangerous trees in Georgia, this can be a gray area and the standard of care can be less stringent depending on where you live. 
In Part 1 of Tree-Gate, we covered the steps you should take to determine whether your neighbor is legally obligated for costs associated with the removal of a dead tree or damages that may have resulted from its fall. Click here to read more about those steps and the questions your Real Estate Lawyer needs to help you answer to determine the best approach to remedying your Tree-Gate situation.

Laws Governing Rural vs. Urban Trees

To determine who’s legally responsible for personal injuries and property damage caused by a fallen tree, we must first determine where the tree is located. In Georgia, different laws apply when a tree is located in a rural versus an urban area.

Rural Tree Liability. In 1977, the Georgia Court of Appeals explained that rural landowners ("RL") are under no obligation to cure dangerous conditions on their land if the condition is of a natural origin. (see Cornett vs. Agee, 143 Ga. App. 55). Trees, even dead or deceased trees, are of a natural origin. Therefore, if your neighbor's rural tree falls onto your property line, and they did not contribute to its fall, your neighbor cannot be held liable. Even if they could have easily removed the tree.

Here's the exception to this seemly blanket "non-liability rule" - if the RL had actual notice of the hazardous tree, the RL could be held liable for damages that arise. What's the moral of the story? If your property is being threatened by a RL's trees, put them on notice immediately, and make sure your notice is in writing.

Urban Tree Liability. Landowners are held to a higher standard of care in urban areas -- "reasonable care." Unlike a RL, an urban landowner ("UL"), has a duty of reasonable care to inspect trees displaying visible, apparent signs of decay to the point that they could fall over a property line and cause harm. Therefore, ULs can be held liable for subsequent injuries and property damage if they knew or had reason to know the tree was dead, diseased or decayed. 

Keep in mind, we're not talking about "normal usual latent micro-non-visible accumulative decay." (see Wesleyan College v. Weber, 238 Ga. App. 90 (1999)). We're talking about the knowledge that a reasonable person might have; not a trained arborist or inspector. However, if there are patent signs of decay that a reasonable person can see, the UL has a duty to maintain the tree or eliminate the hazard it poses.

No matter where the tree is located, actual notice (by you or obvious conditions) is not only the general rule of thumb, but also the law in Georgia.

Courtesy of The Law Offices of Sam McGuire Jr. PC

Post a Comment