California law takes trees seriously and provides enhanced damages when someone harms them. There is provision for doubling the damages incurred for harm caused to timber, trees, and underwood, and trebling it if the harm is intentional. (Civil Code section 3346.) Another provision allows doubling the damages for harm to trees. (Civil Procedure section 733, set out below). Sacramento real estate attorneys commonly get asked about neighbor trees with overhanging branches and troublesome roots. However, in a recent decision where a landowner with an abundance of chutzpah went onto their neighbor’s property and cut trees to improve their view, they were surprised to learn that not only were they liable for three times the $40,000 to restore the property, but also three times the $30,000 awarded noneconomic damages for annoyance and loss of enjoyment of the property.
In Jeanette E. Fulle v. Kaveh M. Kanani, the defendant lived uphill from the plaintiff. Plaintiff Fulle’s trees blocked the defendant’s view of the San Fernando Valley, so the defendant had workers go onto the plaintiff’s property and cut down the limbs and branches of six trees. Of course, he did not ask permission first. This lawsuit ensued.
The jury awarded $47,000 in damages, plus another $30,000 for noneconomic loss “including annoyance and discomfort, loss of enjoyment of the real property, inconvenience and emotional distress.” The trial judge trebled the economic damages per section 3346, but would not apply the multiplier to the noneconomic damages. It reasoned that use of the phrase “actual determinant” in 3346 intended to narrow the multiplier to economic damages. This appeal followed.
The court first looked at the two damages statutes. The older (1872) Civil Procedure code section 733 mandates treble damages. But the younger (1957) had a few options. First, it trebled damages, but secondly, if the harm was accidental or the bad guy had reason to believe that the land was his own, the damages were only doubled. Subsequent decisions determined that the 773 treble damages are discretionary, while 3346 sets a floor of at least double damages. Other cases decided that plaintiffs may recover damages for annoyance and discomfort as a result of harm to trees, but not whether the multiplier would apply.
The court then focused on the detriment language in the statutes. Section 733 states that the evil doer is liable to the owner of such land … for treble the amount of damages which may be assessed therefor ….” The plain language of this provision is not ambiguous. It permits trebling the “amount of damages which may be assessed.” Since it is established that annoyance damages may be assessed, they may be trebled.
Section 3346 is a little different. It provides that “…the measure of damages is three times such sum as would compensate for the actual detriment ….” The use of the word “actual” is ambiguous, but may not make a difference. Maybe it limits damages to property harm only and not personal harm.
The purpose of the statute is to make timber appropriation unprofitable. “It has been suggested that the purpose of the statute is to educate blunderers (persons who mistake location of boundary lines) and to discourage rogues (persons who ignore boundary lines), to protect timber from being cut by others than the owner.”
The court had to reconcile the two provisions. Since there is no limitation in 733, it could not therefore read into 3346 a limitation to economic damages only. Both economic and noneconomic damages may be subject to the multiplier. Blunderers and rogues beware.
Civil Procedure section 733
Trespass for cutting or carrying away trees, etc., actions for. Any person who cuts down or carries off any wood or underwood, tree, or timber, or girdles or otherwise injures any tree or timber on the land of another person, or on the street or highway in front of any person’s house, village, or city lot, or cultivated grounds; or on the commons or public grounds of any city or town, or on the street or highway in front thereof, without lawful authority, is liable to the owner of such land, or to such city or town, for treble the amount of damages which may be assessed therefor, in a civil action, in any Court having jurisdiction.