WA Case Update: The Encroaching Tree: Is a Duty of Care Owed to an Adjacent Owner When Removing Tree Roots or Branches?

From the desk of Kyle D. Riley: When a landowner engages in self-help to remove encroaching tree roots or branches from his property, is a duty of care owed to the adjacent landowner to ensure the tree is not unnecessarily damaged? Find out how the Washington Court of Appeals recently decided this issue in this week’s case update.

Claims Pointer: The Washington Court of Appeals held that the landowner acted lawfully in trimming the encroaching roots and, further, that the plaintiff was not owed a duty of care to prevent damage to the Douglas Fir Trees.

Mustoe v. Ma, No. 74166-7-1, Washington Court of Appeals, Div. I. (April 4, 2016).

Jennifer Mustoe (“Mustoe”) purchased real property in Rainer, Washington. Her neighbors to the south were Xiaoye Ma (“Ma”) and Anthony Jordan (“Jordan”). Ma owned the neighboring property and Jordan resided with her there. Mustoe had two large Douglas Fir trees located entirely on her property, about 2.5 feet from the property line. While digging a ditch on Ma’s property and along the border of Mustoe’s property, Jordan exposed and removed the trees’ roots. This resulted in a loss of nearly half of the trees’ roots. The damaged trees posed a high risk of falling onto Mustoe’s home. The landscape value of the trees was estimated to be $16,418; the cost of their removal was estimated to be $3,913.

Mustoe filed suit against Ma and Jordan, asserting Jordan had negligently, recklessly and intentionally excavated and damaged her trees. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ma and Jordan, dismissing Mustoe’s claims. Mustoe appealed.

Finding no error, the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The court held that Mustoe had not shown that Jordan acted unlawfully in trimming the encroaching roots and, further, Mustoe was not owed a duty of care from Ma or Jordan to prevent damage to the trees. In Washington, an adjoining landowner can engage in self-help and trim the branches...

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