Washington’s timber trespass statute is pretty tough on those who mess with other people’s trees. It is meant to strongly discourage people from taking the chance that the only potential exposure for removing or damaging a property owner’s trees or shrubs is the cost to replace the trees.
Specifically, RCW 64.12.030 sets forth that:
Whenever any person shall cut down, girdle, or otherwise injure, or carry off any tree, including a Christmas tree . . . timber, or shrub on the land of another person, or on the street or highway in front of any person’s house . . . without lawful authority, . . . any judgment for the plaintiff shall be for treble the amount of damages claimed or assessed.
As indicated, the potential penalties are, in fact, much greater than the simple cost of replacing the damaged or removed trees. Rather, if a court determines that ANYONE violated the statute, he or she is liable for treble (i.e., triple) damages “claimed or assessed.”
***Note: The statute does not distinguish between knowingly or accidentally removing a tree owned by someone else.
Timber Trespass & Legal Repercussions: More Than You May Think
Last fall, the Washington Supreme Court decided the case of Pendergrast v. Matichuk, which changed the landscape of damages available to plaintiffs in timber trespass cases.
In Pendergrast, two neighbors disputed a particular portion of the boundary line separating their properties. While the dispute ensued, and despite the plaintiff’s “strenuous objection” and “tearful plea,” the defendant removed a cherry tree (including a treehouse) located on the area at issue.
After a trial and two appeals, the courts determined that:
- The plaintiff owned the property at issue, including the cherry tree and treehouse; and
- That all of the damages awarded to the plaintiff by the jury – including “$5,200 and $3,310 in economic damages . . . and $75,000 and $40,000 in emotional damages for each wrong” should be tripled pursuant to the timber trespass statute. (For a total award of more than $370,500!!!!)
Practical Effects on Businesses
As a result of the court’s holding, it is clear that the defendant took a terrible gamble when he cut down a tree and tree house worth approximately $8,500. By going out on a limb (ha!), and cutting down the tree, it cost him more than $370,000.
The court’s interpretation of the timber trespass statute directly affects everyone from sparring neighbors to contractors, tree-trimming and removal companies, and construction companies. These entities are subject to timber trespass claims even if their clients do not identify correct property lines.
Liability Insurance May Not Be Enough
- Because many businesses are unaware that they are subject to very steep damages under the timber trespass statute, they do not carry high-enough property liability limits to adequately cover damages resulting from these claims.
- Some insurance carriers may (successfully) argue that the violation of the timber trespass statute constitutes an intentional tort, even if the trespass happens by mistake. As the vast majority of insurance policies preclude coverage for damages resulting from intentional torts, businesses may be out of luck if these claims arise.
- Additionally, insurance carriers may argue that treble damages are, in fact, punitive damages, which are almost always excluded from insurance coverage.
Some Options for Washington Businesses
Because of the risks associated with timber trespass, it is prudent for individuals and businesses such as contractors and tree-removal and trimming companies to take reasonable measures to determine:
- Ownership of the relevant land (e.g., through land surveys); and
- The authority to remove or damage the relevant timber by written agreement.
Moreover, businesses who face exposure to timber trespass claims should consider shifting the risk to customers and clients with legally-enforceable indemnity agreements.
Contact Us Today
As experienced Washington real estate and property attorneys, our firm is able to competently and comprehensively provide you with legal counsel, advice, and support with regard to your property needs – including timber trespass matters. Education and experience in this complex area of law are critical when initiating, defending against, and resolving trespass disputes.
Please contact us for more information on how we can assist you with your specific matter. For information on the services that we provide, please visit our real estate and property practice area page.