Timber - Falling Tree Liability in Georgia

JurisdictionGeorgia,United States
CitationVol. 10 No. 2 Pg. 0001
Pages0001
Publication year2004
Georgia Bar Journal
Volume 10.

GSB Vol. 10, No. 2, Pg. 1. Timber - Falling Tree Liability in Georgia

Georgia State Bar Journal
Vol. 10, No. 2, October 2004

"Timber! - Falling Tree Liability in Georgia"

By David J. Burge

Forests have always played a very important role in the history, economy and environment of Georgia. Forestry is and will remain an import industry in rural Georgia. Trees also play an important role in Georgia's cities: Savannah streets are framed by great live oaks and Atlanta is known as a city within a forest. Given the adage that "what goes up must come down" inevitably applies to trees, Georgia courts have increasingly had to address liability for casualties caused by falling trees. Under Georgia law, tort liability for falling trees depends upon the location of the tree and whether the landowner has, or should have, noticed that the tree was unsafe. An important distinction is drawn based on the location of the tree. A higher standard of care is required of a landowner in an urban area than is required of a rural landowner. Most Georgia property owners are probably unaware of the liability risks that are literally growing on their property. Georgia lawyers would be doing a valuable service to their clients by advising them of this potential area of liability.

TREES LOCATED ON RURAL LAND

Georgia trespass law has long respected the sanctity of property boundary lines.1 For example, trespass can occur if any artificial object crosses a boundary line without the permission of the landowner.2 The person responsible for the trespassing artificial object can be held liable for all property damage and personal injury caused by the wayward object, even if that person does not cross the property boundary himself.3 Trees, however, are naturally occurring objects and are considered part of the realty itself.4 As such, trees that fall over property lines are treated under very different rules of liability. Georgia law regarding liability for falling trees from privately owned property was first articulated in Cornett v. Agee.5 The Cornett court explained that, traditionally, liability for falling trees in rural areas was governed by the common-law principle that a rural landowner is "under no affirmative duty to remedy conditions of purely natural origin," even if the conditions "may be highly dangerous or inconvenient" to adjoining landowners.6 This rule regarding owner liability for natural conditions on rural land was articulated by the Georgia Supreme Court in Roberts v. Harrison,7 in which a landowner was sued in nuisance for accumulations of water on his land that were claimed to have emitted "noxious and deleterious gases injurious to the public health" of adjacent landowners. The Roberts court held that if the landowner had not contributed to the nuisance by his own act, the owner could not be held liable.8 Regardless of the ease with which the owner could have cured the nuisance, in comparison with the harm the ongoing nuisance caused, the owner was not liable for the nuisance because it arose from natural causes.9 According to the Cornett court, this "rule of nonliability for natural conditions" was, historically, a practical necessity in rural areas.10 The court noted that the rule was not applicable in urban situations, however, because of the heightened danger and consequences of such a nonliability policy in an urban setting.11 Even for trees located in rural locations, the Cornett court recognized a growing trend away from blanket nonliability since Roberts was decided. Instead, if a rural landowner has actual notice of a hazardous condition on the land, the landowner can become liable for damages arising from the condition.12 Under current law, a rural landowner is not required to inspect the land to make sure that every tree is safe.13 However, if a rural landowner has actual notice that a particular tree poses a danger to a neighbor or to the public, the owner must take affirmative steps to remedy that hazard.14

TREES LOCATED IN AN URBAN AREA General Liability of Urban Landowner

An urban landowner is held to a standard of reasonable care in inspecting trees that could fall over a property line to ensure the safety of others. This duty is limited to trees having "patent visible decay and not the normal usual latent micro-non-visible accumulative decay."15 In essence, the landowner is not burdened with a "duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for non-visible rot," because "the manifestation of decay must be visible, apparent, and patent so that one could be aware that high winds might combine with visible rot and cause damage."16 The urban landowner is liable for injuries caused by a falling tree only if the landowner knew or reasonably should have known that the tree was diseased, decayed, or in an otherwise dangerous condition.17 The only duty imposed upon an urban landowner with regard to knowledge of the health or condition of trees is that of a reasonable person. The landowner is not charged with the knowledge or understanding of an expert trained in the inspection, care, and maintenance of trees.18 Two cases illustrate this point.

In Cornett, a tree located in a Fulton County residential neighborhood fell due to an apparent combination of high winds and the tree's visible rot.19 Before the tree fell, the owner had been notified of the tree's diseased condition and that the tree was visibly leaning toward the neighboring yard.20 The court explained that when a tree is in an urban area and falls into...

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