California law provides double damages for harm caused to timber, trees, and underwood. Civil Code section 3346. Recently a Court applied it to harm caused by trimming a neighbor’s tree. It also found that the statute awarding attorney fees against an unlicensed contractor who causes harm (CCP 1029.8) cannot be applied to the landowner who hired him. Anyone faced with the problem of damage cause to aneighbor’s tree, or cause to their tree by a neighbor, should consult an experienced Sacramento or Yolo real estate attorney.
Rona v. Costa starts with Paolo, the new home buyer in Tiberon, who wants to install a backyard pizza oven. The neighbor’s Monterey Cypress had limbs growing over the fence, so Paolo hired a day laborer to trim the limbs that would be hanging over the chimney. He paid the laborer under $500, so there was no need for a contractors license. The laborer went overboard, and whacked off limbs that were not overhanging the fence, but where on the neighbor’s side. The tree now had one denuded side, and was odd looking, an expert said it was now a hazard and needed to be removed. The neighbor was outraged, this lawsuit was the result.
The trial court judge found that Paolo was vicariously liable (superior responsible for conduct of his agent) for the damage the laborer caused to the Cypress. He found the damage to be the diminution in value of the tree, plus an additional $15,000. The complicated calculation is described in the opinion. Then the court doubled the amount under Civil Code section 3346. Everyone appealed.