A tree located on the common property of one homeowner fell onto a homeowner’s yard, damaging the homeowner’s fence and a child’s swing set. The community has no record that anyone had ever notified them, or its employees or agents, that the tree was a potential hazard. The tree falling to the ground was an unexpected event.
The general rule is that where a natural condition of the land (tree) causes an invasion to another property interest (tree falls on other property), the owner of the land on which the tree was located is not liable. Rowe v. McGee, et al, 5 N.C. App. 60, 168 S.E. 2d 77 (1969). Property owners in Charlotte saw this general rule to dramatic effect in countless instances in the days following Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Thousands of trees fell across thousands of property lines and boundaries, causing millions of dollars in damage to neighboring properties. Each landowner was responsible to pay for the damage to his own property, and not liable for damage to his neighbor’s property, regardless of where the tree fell from.
An exception to the general rule occurs where the landowner knows or reasonably should know that a hazard exists, which creates an imminent danger to his neighbor. In that event, a landowner may have a duty to ameliorate the hazard. Rowe, supra, 5 N.C. App. at 66. For instance, if a homeowner notified the association that there was a rotten tree on association’s property which endangered the homeowner’s family or property, and if the association ignored that warning and took no action, the association might be liable if the tree fell and caused damage. In this case, there is no evidence.
The next question is whether the association reasonably should have known that the tree was dangerous. If the tree had no visible sign of rot or other obvious danger, then it is unlikely the association could reasonably know even had they inspected the tree. Therefore, no liability. If the tree did have visible rot, the question is whether the association should have reasonably discovered it. It would be impractical to inspect every square yard and the thousands of trees in the common areas, especially where it would entail entering onto and over multiple lots, backyards, etc. Generally, a court would find such an inspection burden to be unreasonable. Homeowners living adjacent to wooded common areas are the best eyes and ears of the association, and if a homeowner is aware of a hazard and fails to notify the association, then he or she contributed to their damage by remaining silent, and would be barred from any recovery.