Boundary disputes are one of the most actively litigated areas of real property law. One common category of such disputes involves the trimming of a neighbor’s tree, either to remove branches that have grown over a property line or to maintain or improve views. While California law generally provides no right to an unobstructed view, an issue we previously addressed here, an adjoining landowner may reasonably trim the branches of a neighbor’s tree to the property line. Adjoining landowners may not, however, enter a neighbor’s property to abate the encroachment, and the potential cost of doing so just increased substantially.
On January 31, 2017, in a case of first impression, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District ruled that annoyance and discomfort damages resulting from tortious injuries to timber or trees are subject to the statutory damage multiplier. Fulle v. Kanani, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2016) (Case No. B271240). The case involved contiguous properties, separated by a fence, in a hillside neighborhood of Encino. The plaintiff’s property contained five mature eucalyptus trees and a black walnut tree, all of which provided her with aesthetic benefits, shade, and privacy. The trees also partially blocked the defendant’s view of the San Fernando Valley. Shortly after acquiring his property, the defendant hired a work crew that entered the plaintiff’s property without her permission, cut the trees to approximately half their height, and removed all of their branches.
The plaintiff filed suit for trespass and negligence and treble damages under section 733 of the Code of Civil Procedure and section 3346 of the Civil Code. Section 733 explicitly authorizes treble damages for cutting down or injuring trees on another person’s land. In turn, section 3346 provides trial courts with discretion to assess treble damages to “compensate for the actual detriment” for wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood upon the land of another.
The case was tried before a jury, which ruled that the defendant intentionally, willfully, and maliciously caused the work crew to enter the plaintiff’s property to cut her trees. The jury awarded $27,500 for damage to the trees, $20,000 for the cost of repairing the harm, and $30,000 for past noneconomic loss, including annoyance and discomfort, loss of enjoyment of the real property, inconvenience and emotional distress.
The plaintiff then moved for treble damages, contending that the term “actual detriment” as used in section 3346 includes both the damage to the trees and the harm that she personally suffered as a result, thus the multiplier applied to both economic and noneconomic damages. The defendant argued that the damage multiplier should only apply to economic damages.
The trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff, trebling her economic damages but declining to apply the multiplier to her damages for annoyance and discomfort. The court reasoned that the use of the term “actual detriment” in section 3346 limits the damage multiplier to actual economic damages and does not extend to intangible, noneconomic damages.
Following a lengthy exercise in statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeal determined that the plain language of section 733 is clear. The Court thus held that because the caselaw allows annoyance and discomfort damages to be assessed for tortious injuries to trees, it follows that such damages are subject to section 733’s treble damages provision. The Court then considered section 3346, noting that it “poses a greater interpretive challenge.” Despite the ambiguities of section 3346, however, the Court acknowledged that it must harmonize the two statutes where reasonably possible, reconcile seeming inconsistencies between them, and construe them to give force and effect to all of their provisions. To harmonize the statutes and give full effect to each, the Court held that annoyance and discomfort damages resulting from tortious injuries to timber or trees are subject to the damage multiplier under sections 733 and 3346.
Fulle is an important new decision in the long line of cases dealing with boundary disputes involving trees. As before, where a jury finds willful and malicious conduct by the defendant, the trial court must award double damages. The courts now have discretion to award treble damages for annoyance and discomfort.