Steven and Gloria’s property had a landscaped yard that included a 30 years old Monterey tree. The roots of the tree extended on Mr. Patel’s yard, their neighbor, causing some cracking on his walkway where it went across the tree roots. Mr. Patel decided to hire a contractor to excavate along the length of his yard and sever the roots of the tree down to a level of approximately three feet. This resulted in a lawsuit by Steven and Gloria, who claimed that the tree became unsafe, a nuisance, unable to support life, and had to be removed at their expense. The court, relying on a 1952 case, decided that Mr. Patel had the absolute right to sever the roots on the tree coming onto his property. Unhappy with the decision, Steven and Gloria appealed.

The court of appeal noted that any removal action must be balanced against the impact on the owners of the tree. It disagreed with Mr. Patel’s position that he had “an unlimited right to do anything he desires on his property regardless of the consequences to others. No person is permitted by law to use his property in such a manner that damage to his neighbor is a foreseeable result.”

The maxim “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” applies to trees as well. Neighbors intent on applying self-help in cutting down trees encroaching on their property must do so keeping in mind the interests of the tree owners, without causing unreasonable injury. The court concluded that “whatever rights Patel has in the management of his own land, those rights are tempered by his duty to act reasonably.” These were the facts in a 1994 case Booska v. Patel, 24 Cal. App. 4th 1786 decided by the First Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal.

How does one measure the financial loss? The usual measure under California law is the difference between the value of the real property before and after the injury, or, alternatively, the cost of restoring the tree to the condition prior to the injury. That amount is doubled and, under certain circumstances may be even tripled where the conduct was fraudulent, oppressive or malicious.