Each autumn, leaves fall from our region’s abundant hardwood trees. Occasionally, we finish raking our leaves and find that a neighbor’s leaves blew over to replace the leaves we so painstakingly already collected.
Individual communities may have rules on leaf collection and other tree-related topics. However, most leaf and tree law is governed by Ohio law.
Generally, leaves and small items such as acorns, buckeyes and small twigs that naturally fall from trees need not be raked or removed. Relatedly, if leaves are blown to a neighbor’s property, the neighbor may not force the tree owner to remove those leaves, unless there is some local law that requires leaf removal.
A bigger issue arises when a tree falls on a neighboring property or loses an entire branch that causes damage. There are a handful of laws that sort out almost all types of tree liability in these situations.
Legal liability stems from tree ownership. The owner of the property upon which the base of a tree trunk is located is the owner of that tree. If a tree trunk is literally located on a property line between separate owners, the tree is owned by both property owners.
A tree owner is always liable for damage to other people or property from a limb or the tree itself falling if the tree owner actually knew that the tree was not fully healthy.
If a tree is in an urban area, the tree owner is also liable for damages from limb or tree falling if the tree owner should have known that the tree was weakened. In other words, in urban areas, tree owners are responsible to regularly inspect the health of their trees. Even if a tree owner does not inspect his or her tree to determine the tree’s health, the tree owner will usually be legally responsible for damages caused by that tree if an inspection would have showed how weak the tree was.
Notably, urban areas are defined in this context as being any geographic area consisting of houses that are generally within 100 feet of each other for at least a quarter mile along a public road or street, often with speed limits on that road or street of less than 55 mph. Therefore, unincorporated areas can be considered “urban” when it comes to tree liability.
If a neighbor is aware of a tree that is weakened, the neighbor generally cannot cut or trim the tree without the tree owner’s permission. However, a neighbor may remove another tree owner’s tree branches that extend across the property line onto the property of the neighbor. Notably, in this situation, the tree branches can only be trimmed up to the literal property line.
In rural areas, tree owners are typically not responsible to inspect their trees. If a tree or large limb falls in a rural area, the tree owner is usually only responsible if that tree owner was actually aware that the tree was weak or if the tree owner was intentionally ignorant as to the tree’s condition.
Nichole Johnson, a third-year law student at Ohio Northern University in Ada, contributed to this column.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.