Question: My neighbor says roots from one of my trees are damaging the foundation of his house and he has threatened to sue me. Can he sue? What is my liability?
The short answer is that your neighbor can sue you, the question is whether your neighbor has grounds to use and would he prevail. If your neighbor sues you for “nuisance” or for “negligence” and seeks damages, the Court will determine what your reasonable action should have been and decide accordingly. You could be held liable for the cost of repairs or replacement. I should caution you that repairing a damaged foundation can run into the many thousands of dollars. tree roots damaging a foundation is serious issue and you need to act with caution.
First, the court will ask if your neighbor acted properly to remove the roots damaging his foundation. The Court may lessen the damages if your neighbor could have taken actions on his own and failed to do so. A Court would question the severity of the problem if your neighbor took no action on his own. The reality is that tree roots are unlikely to damage a well-maintained concrete foundation, yet they will push into cracks and holes , enlarge them and cause substantial damage. So did your neighbor maintain his foundation? Did yourneighbor heed the warning signs of problems with the foundation? Pete and Ron’s Tree Service says to look for these harbingers of trouble:
- Cracks in your foundation’s floor
- Mostly vertical cracks in your foundation’s walls
- Cracked or shattered windows with no other evidence of trauma
- Uneven door and window frames
- Buckling in the floor’s surface
After looking at your neighbor’s actions, the court would look to see if you should have taken action to prevent damaging the foundation. Were you aware that the roots from your tree were damaging the foundation? Had your neighbor told you? Were there reasonable actions you could have taken to prevent the roots from causing damage? If you could have taken actions, then the court may find you liable for the damages.
There was recently a case on Long Island (New York) concerning damage to a retaining wall caused by a neighbor’s tree. A judge ordered that the neighbor with the damaged retaining wall was entitled to damages for the wall repair only if the tree owner refused to remove the tree. The Court made clear that property owners who act reasonably in removing or repairing a tree would not be held liable to future damage.
Okay, so we have covered how the courts might view your case. What is the best action for you to take? Perhaps you should speak to your neighbor and learn more about the actual damage. You could suggest that you remove the tree or work with an arborist to contain the roots while saving the tree. You could also suggest that you share the cost with your neighbor.
If your neighbor won’t agree to split the cost, you might want to remove the tree at your own expense, thereby limiting any possibility for damages to his foundation at a later date.