We frequently receive calls from people who are concerned about a neighbor's trees. We discussed potential legal claims regarding trees here and here. We always warn people to be careful when taking any action regarding a neighbor's tree. If you damage or kill that tree, either by cutting limbs or by cutting roots, you could be liable to the neighbor for money damages. You especially cannot trespass on someone else's land to remove or trim a tree.
Both of these issues arose in a recent Iowa Court of Appeals case. The case is a lesson on what can happen when someone illegally removes trees from someone else's land. The case also highlights the importance of accurate knowledge of where property lines lie, including commissioning a survey of necessary, before removing trees.
On September 13, 2017, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued its decision in North v. Van Dyke, a case brought by a landowner regarding trespass and the removal of trees from her land. Douglas Van Dyke hired Heck’s Dozer, Inc. to construct a trail in rural Boone County along a ravine between his property and adjacent land owned by Eunice North. Twenty of North’s trees were removed during the trail’s construction, and a portion of the completed trail encroached upon North’s property.
North sued Van Dyke and Heck’s Dozer, Inc. for trespass, loss of lateral support, and loss of trees. The jury awarded North damages of $50,000 on the trespass and lateral support claims and $20,100 in treble damages on the loss-of-tree claim. The jury held Van Dyke 75% responsible and Heck 25% responsible.
North’s loss-of-tree claim was premised on Iowa Code section 658.4(2013). That section states: "For willfully injuring any timber, tree, or shrub on the land of another, or in the street or highway in front of another’s cultivated ground, yard, or city lot, or on the public grounds of any city, or any land held by the state for any purpose whatever, the perpetrator shall pay treble damages at the suit of any person entitled to protect or enjoy the property." The jury awarded North $6700 for the loss of trees, which when trebled, resulted in damages of $20,100.
Van Dyke contended that North failed to prove he “willfully” destroyed North’s trees. "Willfully" means an act done wantonly, and without any reasonable excuse. It could also refer to an intentional and deliberate act without regard to the rights of others. The court of appeals ruled that a reasonable juror could have found the willfulness component satisfied or, alternatively, could have found Van Dyke acted without reasonable excuse when he removed North's trees.
North testified at trial that she told Van Dyke that she didn't want him on her land. After the work was completed, North commissioned a survey and learned that the work and tree removal had encroached on her land. Van Dyke did not have the property surveyed before he began work on the trail. Based on North's testimony that she told Van Dyke to stay off her land and Van Dyke's failure to obtain a survey before beginning work, the court of appeals upheld the finding of willfulness and treble damages against Van Dyke.