A landowner’s liability for his/her trees – no unreasonable burden

The recent decision of Case Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd -v- Hind and Steel (2014) provides a useful reminder on the extent of a landowner’s duties in respect of trees on his/her land where those trees fall and cause damage to a neighbouring property. 

The landowner in question was Ms Hind, a primary school headmistress and the owner of a Victorian period house located adjacent to a railway.  On 18 December 2009, there were severe storms in the area causing a 150 year old Ash tree located within the garden of the property to fall onto the railway.  A passing train (without passengers) collided with the tree causing damage to the train and to the track.  Nobody was injured by the collision.

The Court confirmed that a landowner was not liable for damage caused to neighbouring property by a fallen tree where there had been no prior indication of danger.  The Court summarised the principles relating to a landowner’s duties as follows:

  1. The owner of a tree owes a duty to act as a reasonable and prudent landowner.
  2. This means that a landowner has a duty to act where there is a danger which is apparent to him/her, but a landowner will not be expected to act as “the insurer of nature”.
  3. A reasonable and prudent landowner should carry out preliminary or informal inspections on a regular basis, and this may extend to fuller inspections by a qualified arboriculturalist such as where a potential problem is revealed or a particular risk perceived.
  4. The resources available to the landowner may have a relevance, such as where the landowner has particular knowledge about trees.

It was determined that Ms Hind’s duty was fulfilled by her carrying out of periodic, informal inspections of the tree during which nothing had placed her on notice that the tree was unhealthy or likely to fall. 

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