So what is the value of a tree? The answer can vary. There are several ways to value a tree. A tree may have value as lumber or firewood. Or a tree may be valued according to the cost of replacing it. A tree may have an aesthetic value that can be quite different from its value as lumber or firewood. It might seem like some trees have very little value. But others can have considerable value.
These questions can become important when trees are removed, damaged or destroyed.
Law is often based on experience. And experience shows that people sometimes damage, destroy, or remove trees located on property belonging to someone else. Sometimes these cases arise when landowners don’t know the true location of the property line. And sometimes these cases arise when persons deliberately remove trees that don’t belong to them.
When trees belonging to someone else are wrongfully damaged, destroyed, or removed, the general rule is that the “measure” of damage is the diminution in value of the real property. In other words, if the trees in an orchard were wrongfully removed or destroyed, then the amount of the damage would usually be the difference in the value of the property before and after the trees were removed or destroyed. In the case of timber land, the value of the trees may be the difference in the value of the land before and after the trees are removed. In some cases, the correct value may be the value of the trees as lumber, or the value of the trees when then are still in the forest after being cut.
In a suburban setting, the value of the trees may be quite different. A single tree removed from a residential lot may not diminish the value of that lot by any significant amount. But if the owner has a personal reason for replacing the tree, or if it’s likely the owner will actually restore the tree, then the correct measure of damages may be the cost of replacing the tree with a similar tree.
Any one of these values can be significant. The cost of replacing a single large, mature oak or palm tree could be surprisingly high. And the timber value of several acres of prime timber land could be enormous. In one recent case, a ranch owner received a damage award of $375,000 for damage to trees on their property caused by a fire. This case is reported as Kelly v. CB&I Constructors, Inc. (2009) DJDAR 16339.
California law provides that in some situations, a person who wrongfully removes or damages a tree can be liable for twice the amount of the damage. In other situations, such a person can be liable for three times the amount of the loss or damage to the trees. This law is found in part at California Civil Code section 3346.
Most landowners probably don’t ever anticipate that they might become liable for a wrongful removal or damage to trees on neighboring properties. If landowners don’t spend a lot of time removing trees, then this may be true. But a surprise can exist with respect to fires. A person who allows or causes a fire to damage neighboring trees can be liable for two or even three times the value of the damage to the trees. This can be a significant amount of money, and is another good reason for homeowners to make sure their homeowner policies are kept current with adequate amounts of liability coverage.