Tree Removal

When Are Trees Just “Timber”?

A Pennsylvania man recently learned the tough answer to this question when he mistakenly cut down 13 mature trees on a wooded slope between his undeveloped lots and a neighbor’s home. No one disputed that the man was honestly mistaken in thinking the trees were on his own land. No one disputed that the man cut the trees to sell as timber and was paid $5,000 for them.

The dispute in the case centered on what the homeowner was owed in damages. Was he entitled to the $5,000 or was he entitled to be made whole for the loss of his trees?

Pennsylvania law provides that a person who cuts or removes another person’s “timber” is responsible for paying three times its value if the removal was deliberately wrongful, two times the value if the removal was carelessly wrongful, and only the actual market value if the remover was reasonable in his or her mistaken beliefs.

But when land is irreparably damaged by the wrongful removal of trees, the damages are measured not by the penalties for removal of timber but, instead, by the loss of market value of the property.

In this case, the location of the trees was vitally important because they served as a buffer between the owner’s home and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The fact that the trees served as a buffer to the noise and dust of the Turnpike led the court to decide that the loss in market value of the property was the proper award. The homeowner’s appraiser testified that the loss was $20,000, and the neighbor was required to pay that amount.

Whenever trees are not intended to be harvested for commercial use, wrongful removal of such trees, particularly those on residential properties or those that provide useful shade, will trigger damages awards that focus on the irreparable loss to the value of the real estate.

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