So you go out one day and find that your neighbor has cut down your tree. What are your responsibilities, your rights when such tree has been removed illegally. Notwithstanding the fact that many municipalities have tree ordinances of varying types, the removal of trees on another’s land is illegal.
The question of whether to bring suit often turns on the question of whether the damages are sufficient to warrant a lawsuit. Was that tree your favorite Black Cherry. Indeed, the type and extent of the damages varies by statute, often determining whether the landowner brings suit in New York. For example, under New York’s Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, RPAPL § 861, a landowner may seek treble or triple damages for the improper removal or cutting of a tree. That, three times the stumpage value of the tree, or $250, or both in addition to any permanent and substantial damage caused to the land if any person removes or attempts to remove any tree without consent.
Other actions that may be brought for injury to property include arguing there was a trespass of land. In Western New York Land Conservancy, Inc. v. Cullen, 886 N.Y.S.2d 303 (4th Dep’t 2009), the plaintiff-landowner sought treble stumpage value for tree damage to its property in a trespass action against the adjoining landowner. The court ruled that the plaintiff was not entitled to treble damages because he had failed to present evidence establishing stumpage value, and, instead, presented evidence of restoration costs. If the plaintiff in this case had presented credible evidence establishing stumpage value, the court would have likely awarded treble damages.
Landowners may also file an action for negligence or nuisance under well established law in New York. Damages in such actions for negligence or nuisance, however, will likely be limited to compensatory damages – or damages flowing from the injury and harm the defendant caused – rather than treble or punitive damages. For all claims to recover for injury to property, the Statute of Limitations is three years.
If there is an illegal removal of trees in a critical environmental zone, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) should be notified. Notifying the DEC will inform the agency of the situation and whether any relevant parties are in compliance with environmental laws and permits. If the illegal tree removal involved state land, the guilty party may be liable for a civil penalty or treble damages, or both.
Bottom Line– you are not without rights against the party who illegally cuts the trees in New York. The municipality, the neighbor and the DEC might all have claims, including compensatory damages and treble damages.