It rains. The ground gets saturated. The wind blows. Trees fall.
Almost every year there’s a story about someone killed by a falling tree. During the “bomb cyclone” two people from Bellevue died.
It seems like there should be strict liability. If one of your trees falls on a passing car, you should be responsible. But that’s not the way Washington law works.
There are two different sets of rules in Washington. One for trees in “urban” and “residential areas.” The other for trees in “remote areas.”
Urban and Residential Areas
The owner of land located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area has a duty of reasonable care to prevent defective trees from posing a hazard to others on the adjacent land. An owner who has actual or constructive knowledge that there’s a problem with a tree (or the trees) has a duty to take corrective action to protect the plaintiff on adjacent land.
(Constructive knowledge can include things like knowing that there is a disease affecting trees on the property. The owner doesn’t have to know whether a specific tree is sick or not. We established constructive knowledge in a case by showing the owner was aware of a “pocket” of laminated root rot.)
If property is located in a truly remote area, the landowner owes a duty of reasonable care to prevent defective trees from posing a hazard to others on adjacent land if the landowner alters the natural condition of the land by removing trees.
(Cutting trees is a big deal because it makes those standing more susceptible to the wind and also eliminates the possibility of those trees providing support for the one that falls or at the very least deflecting it and preventing it from striking, e.g., an adjacent road.)
There are a couple of defenses that come up in a lot of these cases. One is Recreational Use Immunity. It applies where someone makes their property available—without a fee—to the public. The other is Forestry Practices Immunity. The Forestry Practices statute is somewhat obscure. There is only one reported case involving it. It basically applies when a forestry company is required to leave a certain tree or trees standing.
A couple of years ago we represented client who was hit by a tree that fell from a state park. After significant litigation the state paid well into six figures to settle the case.
Before that we represented the family of a girl who was killed when a tree fell on a fence and caused the top rail to protrude into the road like a spear. The claim against the property owner in that case settled too.
If you have questions about cases involving falling trees, let us know. We’re happy to talk and figure out the best way to handle the situation.