A Hurricane Caused a Neighbor’s Tree to Fall? Who is Liable for Property Damage?

A Hurricane Caused a Neighbor’s Tree to Fall? Who is Liable for Property Damage?
Weather |June 11th, 2022

Unfortunately, Louisiana property owners must deal with numerous property damage claims, including fallen trees and branches from a neighbor’s property. Trees can be an incredible asset to the aesthetic of any property or neighborhood. They can provide an excellent source of green space for residents and raise property values. However, trees can also be an incredible nuisance for many property owners – especially when neighbors fail to maintain trees on their property correctly. This can lead to accidents causing injuries and property damage. Property owners who have recently experienced property damage due to fallen trees or branches from neighboring properties may be entitled to damages.

Assessing Responsibility for a Tree-Fall Damage

If a Louisiana property owner experiences a tree falling from a neighbor’s property, Louisiana law provides that property owner with some clarification of liability. Under Article 2317.1 of the Louisiana Civil Code, the code states that 

[t]he owner or custodian of the [tree] is answerable for damage occasioned by its ruin, vice, or defect, only upon a showing that he knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice or defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that he failed to exercise such reasonable care.

Once a property owner knows or should have known about a defect located on or within their property, in this case, a tree, the property owner is liable for damage caused by that defect. Based on the article located within the Louisiana Civil Code as stated above, a property owner who has experienced property damage or personal injury due to a neighbor’s tree falling on their property can claim the neighbor or their insurance company liable for the damage. 

Tree Damage During Hurricane Season

Louisiana experiences some of the worst property damage during and after hurricane season. If a neighbor’s tree has fallen during hurricane season and is the reason for property damage, claiming the neighbor is liable for the damage can be difficult. Insurance companies will often find ways to not payout claims for damage, including damage caused by hurricanes.

Often the neighbor’s insurance company will argue that damage caused by the tree was not a result of the policyholder’s failure to address defects in the tree (broken and neglected branches or encroaching or defective roots). Instead, the insurance company will argue that the hurricane’s strong winds were the direct cause of the tree or its branches falling on a property. In these cases, an experienced Louisiana tree damage attorney can commence an appropriate investigation of the damage and determine whether property owners can claim the neighbor liable for damages caused by the tree.

To prevail on these types of claims, the property owner that has experienced the damage must be able to provide evidence that, regardless of the hurricane, the tree was defective enough to cause property damage. Usually, this can be done by supplying evidence of the tree’s defect and showing that the tree’s owner knew or should have known the tree was defective. Property owners should keep contemporaneous notes of any conversations regarding defects of a tree, including dates and times of the conversation and what was discussed.

Hurricane Ida Overturns Massive Tree

During 2021’s Hurricane Ida, a Morgan City, LA residential home was nearly destroyed by an overturned tree. The reporter for the local Channel 10 affiliate said on the station’s YouTube Channel that she was approximately 5 feet and 1 inch tall, but the overturned tree and its exposed root system was nearly twice her size. Weather reports showed sporadic wind gusts of 60 miles per hour or more, which likely caused the tree to fall. Although no one was reportedly injured and the tree just missed the house inches, it highlights how dangerous and catastrophic fallen trees can be on residential and commercial properties. 

Filing an Insurance Claim

Once a neighbor’s tree has fallen on the property, property owners should act quickly by filing a claim with their property insurance provider to commence the claims process. Property owners should take the following steps to start the process:

  • Notify their insurance company of the damage.
  • Collect evidence of the damage by taking pictures of the tree, any damage caused by the tree, and pictures of the surrounding area, including the neighbor’s property.
  • Mitigate any further damage by blocking off areas around the tree and covering property that has been damaged by laying tarps or making temporary fixes to prevent further damage.
  • Compile a detailed list of all property damaged by the fallen tree, including any structural damage to the property, damage to any landscape, and damage to individual possessions (vehicles, appliances, electronic equipment, other valuables, and personal belongings).
  • Collect and maintain any paperwork associated with damaged property and the property insurance policy.
  • Locate temporary housing if the damage caused by the tree rendered any dwellings uninhabitable.  

Once the claims process has commenced, a property owner’s insurance provider will determine how best to handle the claim. Suppose it is clear that the neighbor was directly liable for the tree damage. In that case, the property owner’s insurance provider will seek compensation for payment of the claim from the neighbor or their insurance company. On the other hand, if a hurricane or other natural occurrence caused the damage, whether a defect in the tree caused the damage or not, the insurance company might not seek a claim against the neighbor.

Property owners should consider contacting an experienced Louisiana property damage attorney during the claims process. Insurance companies will often find any reason to prevent having to pay out funds for property damage. In addition, an attorney can help investigate aspects of the claim, contact relevant parties (including the neighbor) for statements regarding the property damage, develop a legal strategy to seek funds from the neighbor or an insurance company, and negotiate with the property owner’s behalf to seek settlement if possible.