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Premises Liability for Trees on Urban and Residential Property
Posted in Real Estate

In Marshall v. Erie Insurance Exchange, the Indiana Court of Appeals delivered a holding that described the duty of care and potential liability of a landowner to its neighbors for damages caused by trees falling across property lines.  In the case, the Marshalls were the owners of a vacant lot in the City of Elkhart with an old tree located near its boundary with Cindy Cain.  Ms. Cain called the City with concerns about the health of the tree and the possible danger posed by it to her home.  After inspecting the tree, the City agreed with Ms. Cain’s concerns and informed the Marshalls that the tree should be taken down. The Marshalls sought a second opinion from an arborist and, based on the arborist’s opinion that the tree was not unhealthy, did not follow the City’s request.  Shortly thereafter, the tree fell on Ms. Cain’s home, causing substantial damage. 

Ms. Cain’s insurance company paid for repairs to the home and the insurance company filed suit against the Marshalls to recoup its payments to Ms. Cain as a result of the damage caused by the Marshall's negligent maintenance of the tree. The trial court found for the insurance company and awarded damages to reimburse the insurance company.  The Marshalls appealed the trial court’s decision.  The Court of Appeals discovered that the topic of a landowner’s duty of care and liability for fallen trees among neighboring properties had never been decided by an appeals court in the State of Indiana and, therefore, its ruling would establish the standard of the law in Indiana. 

To provide direction, the court reviewed the findings of other states’ courts on the subject and determined that “an urban or residential landowner does have a duty to protect neighbors from the risk of damage or injury caused by a falling tree.”  To clarify, the court did not intend its holding to apply to all damage caused by fallen trees, regardless of circumstances.  Rather, the holding specified that a landowner has a duty to “exercise reasonable care to prevent unreasonable risks of harm or damage to a neighboring landowners” from the poor or otherwise dangerous condition of trees on one’s property (including, in some instances, a landowner’s further duty to conduct periodic inspections on one’s property). 

Applying this newly determined standard of care to the facts of the Marshall case, the court upheld the trial court’s determination that the Marshalls violated their duty of reasonable care to Ms. Cain by failing to remove the tree after receiving notice from the City requesting removal.

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