There is a stand of trees on the boundary line of your property. You know they are actually located on your neighbor’s side of the boundary. But, they are really growing high. They block light on your land and they seem a bit top-heavy. You would love to trim them back or top them off to reduce the shadow in your yard. You need to think before you act! You will be subjecting yourself to liability for damages in a court action, and even triple damages, if you just move ahead and trim back or cut back the tops of the trees!
The Massachusetts Appeals Court just faced this issue in the case of Joseph v. Nathanson, decided January 16, 2015. The plaintiff in that case had planted 35 arborvitae trees on her land near the property line. The defendant had a landscaper “trim” the trees by cutting approximately 5 to 6 feet from the top of the trees. The plaintiff brought suit under Massachusetts statute which prohibits the destruction of trees belonging to another. Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 242, Section 7 provides for liability on the part of anyone who “without a license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees … on the land of another ….” The statute provides a remedy of three times the damages that are proven.
The plaintiff’s expert testified at trial that “topping” of the trees meant that they would never grow vertically again and would no longer function as a privacy screen. The Appeals Court ruled that the jury was permitted to credit this testimony, find that the trees were destroyed within the meaning of the statute and therefore find in favor of the plaintiff. An award of $35,000 in damages, tripled under the statute, was upheld by the Appeals Court.