Brian C. Dever
In a few months, as the seasons begin to change and summer gives way to fall, our focus may turn to the trees of New England, as their leaves begin their annual change in color. It happens every fall, and it brings visitors in to the area from all over the country, and the world. Trees are a part of the New England identity, so much so that, in Massachusetts, we have a special statute concerning harm to trees and the amount of money a landowner can recover if his or her trees are cut down by another.
Pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 242 §7, Willful Trespass to Trees, a landowner may recover damages for the loss of trees, timber, wood, or underwood, caused by the actions of another. If trespasser does not have a good reason to believe that the trees were on his/her land, then those damages are automatically multiplied by three, which is called treble damages. The case law informs us that “good reason” requires something more substantial than a (false) belief in property lines. According to Palmer v. Davidson, 211 Mass. 556, 98 N.E. 623 (1912), a mere belief that one has the right to cut down trees does not create a “good reason” that the trees are on his/her land. The statute creates an affirmative duty on the part of the tree cutter to investigate his/her rights prior to cutting down any trees. The duty can be satisfied by getting a surveyor or through a professional examination of the deed to the land. Thus, if someone has paid a surveyor to assess their property rights, and relying on that surveyor’s incorrect statements cuts down trees on another’s land, they would not be liable for treble damages, but would still be liable for the damage to the trees.