Trees are a significant part of a community. Not only are they essential for the environment, but they can enhance the character and beauty of a neighborhood. With that said, trees can also cause damage. Whether it is from overhanging branches or roots which grow far and wide, damage can be costly. The question becomes what can a property owner do if there is damage or fear of damage from overhanging branches from a neighbor’s tree? There are decisions in New Jersey that are nearly one hundred (100) years old which describe overhanging tree branches as a nuisance for which an action for damages lies. Courts also recognized the common law right of self help, the cutting off of the overhanging branches up to the property line, but no further. However, one must remember that if he chooses self help and cuts off overhanging branches, then he must be certain that the cutting will not harm the tree, or he will be liable for damage to the tree owner for destroying it.
Roots Cause Damage
A more recent case discusses damage done by the roots of a tree. Unlike tree branches, tree roots are largely under ground and evident only upon digging downward. Their extent and growth may be uncertain and unpredictable. The Appellate Division held that damages were properly awarded to the owner of the damaged property as long as there is no proof that the owner was aware that the tree roots were in the vicinity of the property when it was built. Most authorities conclude that where the property owner plants a tree which causes an injury to another because it topples over, its branches break, its roots spread, or for some other related reason, the property owner is liable.