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The Massachusetts Rule Regarding Neighbors' Trees: New Case Law

As the expression goes, “good fences make good neighbors.” Under some circumstances, however, neighborly disputes can – and do – arise. One of those circumstances deals with Mother Nature at her finest: what happens when a neighbor’s tree branches reach over another’s property, causing damages?

This was the issue in a recent case decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In the case, Shiel v. Rowell, the plaintiffs filed a complaint for private nuisance and trespass against the defendant, a neighbor. The plaintiffs alleged that the neighbor’s tree caused algae buildup on the roof of the plaintiffs’ home. Though the plaintiffs asked the defendant neighbor to cut it down, the defendants refused. The plaintiff sought money damages as well as an injunction requesting that the overhanging branches be cut back. At trial, the judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims. The plaintiffs appealed.

The case was originally decided based on the so-called “Massachusetts rule,” which has long held that a landowner may not hold a neighbor liable when a healthy tree on the neighbor’s property causes damage. This rule was established by a case named Michaelson v. Nutting–as that case pointed out, a Massachusetts landowner has the right to use his or her land, and all of his or her land, to grow trees. In that case, the Massachusetts courts recognized the plaintiff’s right to cut off intruding boughs and roots in order to protect their own property from harm.

The plaintiffs in this case urged the Massachusetts court to adopt the so-called “Hawaii rule,” which grants neighbors the right of action in order to resolve a dispute in court over healthy trees. The Hawaii rule allows the neighbor to recover for damage and cut back branches and roots if the tree causes imminent danger or sensible harm to the neighbor’s property. The plaintiffs argued that the Massachusetts rule is outdated and should be replaced. The plaintiff noted that today, people are living closer to one another and on smaller tracts of land than at the time when the Massachusetts rule was adopted. The defendants, on the other hand, argued that the Massachusetts rule was more sensible and should not be disturbed.

The Supreme Judicial Court sided with the defendants. In its decision, the court discussed the steps towards disturbing precedent, and noted that doing so would require something above and beyond mere disagreement. “We may uproot precedent when ‘the values in so doing outweigh the values underlying stare decisis.’ Overruling precedent requires something above and beyond mere disagreement with its analysis,” the Court noted.

In this regard, the Court refused to uproot the precedent set by the Massachusetts rule. “We see no reason to consider the Massachusetts rule outdated. It may be true that people today are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were when the Massachusetts rule was adopted in the early Twentieth Century,” the Court explained. “But if changes in property ownership would lead us to believe that tree owners are now better able to monitor their trees, the same would be true for their neighbors to monitor and trim encroaching trees. It may be easier to recognize impending or potential harm to one's own property from overhanging branches and intruding roots than it would be for the tree owner to recognize what is happening next door. And even if it is also true that trees today are more likely to cause property damage to neighbors' property, it would be ‘undesirable to categorize living trees, plants, roots, or vines as a 'nuisance' to be abated.’"

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