Question: I went to a party at a friend’s house and parked my car in the driveway. A tree branch fell on top of my car and badly damaged it. I had not collision so I was stuck with the bill. Is my friend responsible for the damage? I have an estimate from the repair shop for over $3,000. The tree branch fell from a tree on his property, so can I get him to pay the damage?
Answer: As is often the case, the answer depends. It depends on whether the tree branch that fell was healthy and if your friend knew it was a threat to fall.
First, make sure that the tree belonged to your friend and not a neighbor. Was the tree trunk entirely on his property? Once you are sure of the owner, then you can determine if you might have a claim against your friend.
A Tree Branch Fell on Your Car, Did Your Friend Have Notice?
Let’s take the first scenario: The tree branch fell on your car; was it healthy? Were there no obvious or known problems that made it a threat to anyone’s safety or property. Under those circumstances if a branch or even the entire tree falls, most state laws consider it an “act of God” and the property holder is not liable for any damage caused by the tree. You should check with your insurance company as they may pay the damage (do not assume that they will not).
Then consider a second scenario. The situation changes if the property owner knew or should have known that the tree branch that fell was damaged or dead and posed a threat. If your friend knew there was a problem with that tree branch and failed to act by taking it down or securing it, he might be held liable for the damage.
The question then is: Did your friend know that the tree branch was a problem? You need to determine if your friend had notice of the threat posed by the tree branch. He may have received actual notice, meaning someone told him or put it in writing. He may have had constructive notice, meaning no one told him, but it was so open and obvious that he should have known. (You can read about notice of a tree hazard here.)
How can you tell if your friend had notice? You can ask him if he ever noticed a problem with the tree branch or if anyone had ever complained to him. Perhaps you can find photographs of the branch before it fell.
We have addressed many of the legal rights and obligations regarding a tree branch that fell on your car. (If you want legal advice, you need to consult an attorney. If you need help finding one, you can check with the local Bar Association or a resource like Avvo.com.) There are also practical issues. How close a friend is this? Have you spoken with him or her? Is there a compromise? Perhaps he can help you with some of the damage? Before you push this issue: ask yourself if the price of seeking money from your friend is worth the friendship.