After the Fire: A Recovery Guide Part Three-Property Damage: Trees

In the wake of a destructive fire, and the lengthy personal recovery process that ensues, there are certain recoverable losses that are easy to overlook. One such example is a loss resulting from a destroyed or damaged tree. This blog post will briefly describe existing California law on the topic, factors that influence a given tree's value, and common insurance policy coverage concerns.

Tree

Unsurprising in a state known for both its natural beauty and its conservation efforts, there is well-established law providing for the recovery of damages related to the loss of trees on personal property. California Civil Code Sec. 3346 measures damages on a sliding-scale of culpability, with "wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood'' generating "three times as would compensate for the actual detriment". In instances where tree damage results from a casual or involuntary action, damages are reduced to only twice the resource's value. Since malice, or "knowing disregard", is an aspect of cases alleging negligently caused fire damage, a plaintiff's recovery amount will be determined using the treble damages provision.

Appraising a tree's value is both science and art. Four factors commonly considered are:

  • Species - Some trees native to Northern California are specially adapted to survive wildfires. These include coast live oaks and redwoods, among others. Even trees that appear to have been badly burned may in fact survive given proper time to recover. Some species are also considered to be more desirable, and thus more valuable, than others.
  • Size - Larger trees are generally more valuable than smaller ones. Height, trunk thickness, branch spread, and bark thickness may all be taken into consideration.
  • Condition - Healthy trees are more valuable than ones that have been damaged or that may be suffering from other issues, such as insect infestations.
  • Location - A tree that adds an aesthetic value to a property will be more valuable than one that does not.

A trained arborist should be brought in to make such appraisals.

While factors like condition or location may be subjective, trees also offer tangible benefits to their surrounding area. Root structures bind the soil and may help prevent erosion damage. Tree branches provide shade and habitat for local wildlife. Trees pull carbon from the air and produce oxygen in the surrounding area. Not only do trees provide these benefits, they do so over dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of years. With this in mind, it becomes easier to see why the law provides for recovery when a tree is negligently destroyed.

Homeowner insurance generally only provides for $500 to $1,000 for the loss of the tree itself, and similar coverage amounts for the removal of a tree that has fallen. It is readily apparent that this coverage may not nearly provide for full recovery when a particularly valuable tree on your property has been lost.

When you are calculating your losses after a major fire, do not forget about trees. They are a precious resource that California law is designed to protect.

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