Landowners must recognise the risks when strong winds threaten their trees
Following closely on the heels of storm Dudley, storm Eunice and storm Franklin passed across the UK and the Met Office reported that wind speeds reached 122 mph at The Needles on the Isle of Wight, provisionally the highest gust ever recorded in England.
But while most of the media focusses on travel disruption, the damage and potential injuries caused by falling trees in such conditions poses a real threat to people and property.
The problems following winter storms occur typically not from healthy trees without leaf cover, but from issues with diseased or damaged trees, which can raise the question of liability for any damage or injury caused by those trees.
Who is legally responsible for damage inflicted by a fallen tree?
The answer to the question, 'who is legally responsible for damage inflicted by a tree falling or debris from a damaged tree?' is relatively simple. It is the owner of the land on which a tree stands. They are responsible for the health and safety of those likely to be impacted by any issue with that tree, with liability potentially arising if the tree itself falls or if branches or debris fall from the tree.
The first step in establishing responsibility is to find the owner of the tree. This may be obvious if it is standing in the middle of a garden, but can be less clear if the tree is on or near the boundaries of land owned by different people.
A search of the title deeds to the land or Land Registry data may reveal the owner of the land on which the tree stands if there is any doubt.
The local highway authority can be questioned to determine if they maintain the trees adjacent to the highway when there is some doubt over responsibility, especially for trees in private gardens that overhang the highway and/or pavement.
Do not ignore the safety of trees on your land
It is the responsibility of the tree owner to ensure it is safe. This typically requires a regular visual check for signs of disease or damage, such as uprooting, splits or loose branches, following high winds and storms.
Even a relatively small tree can weigh several tons, and the branch of a large old oak may weigh several tons alone. A tree being blown over or losing a large branch could cause death or serious injury and expensive damage to property, with damage to highways and railways a real risk.
The issue is one of public safety, and landowners must be careful to reduce risks with any trees close to areas with high levels of public traffic, even on private land where their duty of care extends to trespassers too.
It can be expedient to engage a tree surgeon or arborist to undertake a regular inspection of your trees and provide you with a report that can be used as evidence that you have done all you can to regularly ensure the health of your trees, should anyone claim that you had not.
If hazards like dead branches are identified during the check, the owner should seek the advice and services of a tree surgeon. When a tree overhangs a neighbour's land, they have the right to cut back to the boundary any overhanging branches and return them to the owner of the land on which the tree stands. Again, with larger trees the services of a tree surgeon should be sought.
Fortunately, tree owners are not responsible for collecting the leaves that blow on to someone else's land, but if they were to block a drain and cause flood damage there may be a case to answer, so as part of their regular inspection, landowners should check for this potential problem.
When a tree is subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), it is essential permission from the local authority is attained before any work is carried out, even if it is critical remedial work that needs doing quickly.
If a tree owner ignores their responsibility and someone is hurt or property is damaged by a falling tree or branch, the tree owner risks a claim for negligence, which is why regular inspections and records of the results are important.
An owner who can show they maintained their trees and made every effort to keep them in good order will find they have an easier defence against a claim of negligence.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.