What to do if trees were damaged by fire in California

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.

-Kahlil Gibran

First, determine who owned the trees. Second, determine what caused the fire. Third, know what damages are recoverable.

Who owns trees in California?

If the trunk is entirely on a person’s property, then that person owns the tree. See Civil Code 833, here.

If, however, the trunk straddles a property line, then both owners own the tree “in common.” See Civil Code 834, here. It doesn’t matter where branches and roots extend. See Civil Code 833, here.

What caused the fire?

If you started the fire, intentionally or not, there shouldn’t be any insurance coverage. If the fire started by an act of God, there may be coverage. It depends on the type of homeowners policy you have.

What’s interesting is if the fire was started by someone else, say your neighbor who negligently tossed a cigarette into a trash bin or a utility company with a blown transformer.  In that case, you may consider bringing a third party claim against them for the damage. Here are potentially recoverable damages in such a third party claim.

General Value of Damaged Trees in California

Recoverable damages are generally the difference in land value before and after the destruction. See Santa Barbara Pistachio Ranch v. Chowchilla Water District (2001) 88 CA4th 439, 446-48. For example, if your property was worth $200,000 with trees and now it is worth $100,000 without trees, your recoverable damages are $100,000.

Recoverable damages sometimes include the cost of either replacing the trees or restoring the property to its condition prior to the destruction. If, for example, the cost of replacing the trees is $125,000, then your recoverable damages are $125,000.

It can also include the cost of replacing the destroyed trees with identical trees. See Heninger v. Dunn (1980) 101 CA3d 858, 865. Example: the cost of replacement is $150,000; your recoverable damages are then $150,000.

California Property Damage Law: Health and Safety Code

Anyone who sets fire to a tree is responsible for “any” harm to the tree. See Health and Safety Code 13007. The person’s actions could be intentional or negligent–it doesn’t matter. Recoverable damages includes “fire suppression” costs incurred in fighting the fire (e.g. firemen) and the cost of providing rescue services. See Health and Safety Code 13009.

California Property Damage Law: Civil Code 3346

If the destruction of the trees was intentional, then the recoverable damages are “treble” (or triple) the ordinary measure of damages per Civil Code 3346. That statute is punitive. So if your recoverable damages are $100,000, they then became $300,000.

If, however, the destruction was casual or involuntary, then the recoverable damages are double. See Civil Code 3346. For example, your $100,000 of recoverable damages becomes $200,000.

California Property Damage Law: Code of Civil Procedure 733

Code of Civil Procedure 733 allows “treble” damages for any injury to trees.

Fire by Trespass

If you have a third party claim, you can argue that the third party committed a fire by trespass. Under the Kelly v CB&I Constructors case, statutory multipliers under Civil Code 3346 and Code of Civil Procedure 733 are recoverable. But another case, Scholes v Lambirth Trucking, held that the multipliers are not recoverable. That split of authority lead to the California Supreme Court taking up the case of Scholes, and they have not yet issued a decision.

 

This is a complicated area of the law, so it’s best to speak with a California Tree Damage Lawyer.

 

Questions? Contact Me for a free consultation.

 

 

 

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