The CA Court says that willfully cutting down your neighbor’s trees is a ‘treble’ thing for noneconomic damages if it annoys/disturbs your neighbor.

Issue By: Leeh A. DiBello

Jeanette E. Fulle v. Kaveh M. Kanani

Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District (January 31, 2017)

Cutting down your neighbor’s trees could be costly as non-economic damages can be trebled. In cases involving the cutting of trees, the court has discretion pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure § 733 and Civil Code § 3346 to award double or treble damages depending on whether the act was willful and malicious or casual and involuntary.

Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s properties are separated by a fence in Encino, California. Six trees on Plaintiff’s property partially blocked the Defendant’s view of the San Fernando Valley. Defendant hired workers who went onto Plaintiff’s property without Plaintiff’s permission to cut down the limbs and branches of the six trees.

Plaintiff filed suit for trespass and negligence. She sought treble damages for trespass under Code of Civil Procedure § 733 and Civil Code § 3346 and double damages for negligence under Civil Code § 3346. Plaintiff argued that trees were irreparably damaged and needed to be removed and replaced, which would require building a retaining wall to “shore up” the hillside. She also sought annoyance and discomfort damages.

The case was tried before a jury. The jury found that the workers who cut/trimmed the trees were acting in the course and scope of the agency with Defendant when they did so. The jury also found that Defendant acted intentionally, willfully and maliciously in causing the workers to enter onto Plaintiff’s property and cut/trim the trees. The jury awarded $27,500 for damage to the trees, $20,000 for the cost of repairing the harm, and $30,000 for past non-economic loss, including annoyance and discomfort, loss of enjoyment of the real property, inconvenience and emotional distress.

After the verdict was read and the jury was excused the Plaintiff moved for treble damages. She contended that the term “actual detriment” as used in Civil Code § 3346 includes both the damage to the trees and the harm that she personally suffered as a result, thus the multiplier applied to both economic and non-economic damages. Defendant argued that the damage multiplier should only apply to economic damages.

The trial court entered judgment which trebled Plaintiff’s economic damages. However, the trial court declined to treble the non-economic damages. The court noted that the use of the term “actual detriment” in Civil Code § 3346 limited the treble damages to actual economic damages.

The issue on appeal was whether annoyance and discomfort (non-economic) damages resulting from injuries to trees maybe doubled or trebled under the timber trespass statutes (C.C.P. § 733 and Civil Code § 3346). C.C.P. § 733 mandates treble damages.

The Appellate Court held that because case law allows non-economic damages to be assessed for tortious injuries to trees, then such damages should also be allowed to be trebled pursuant to C.C.P. § 733. Next, the Appellate Court considered Civil Code § 3346. The Court stated that it must “harmonize” the two statutes where reasonably possible. The Court concluded that non-economic damages resulting from tortious injuries to trees are subject to the damage multiplier under both C.C.P. § 733 and Civil Code § 3346. As in this case, where the jury finds willful and malicious conduct by the Defendant, the trial court has the discretion to award treble damages for annoyance and discomfort.

COMMENT

This is the first case in California to allow annoyance and discomfort damages to be trebled per C.C.P. § 733 and Civil Code § 3346. The penalty for cutting trees on a neighbor’s property has been increased.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Fulle v. Kanani

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