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From Martha's Vineyard, a Case With a View

It is debatable whether George Washington ever chopped down a cherry tree, but we can be certain he was never dragged into court over it. Not so the Martha's Vineyard property owner and his unfortunate landscaper who must pay $90,000 after chopping down 10 of his neighbor's trees. Boston lawyer Terry Klein, at his blog Decisionism, urges anyone considering chopping a neighbor's tree to read yesterday's Massachusetts Appeals Court decision, Glavin v. Eckman.

So who knew that Massachusetts has a law imposing treble damages on anyone who cuts down a neighbor's tree? Certainly not Bruce Eckman. His view of the ocean from the pricey Aquinnah section of this resort island off the Cape Cod coast was obstructed by trees inconveniently located on the lot of his neighbor, James A. Glavin. In 1996, Eckman asked Glavin for permission to cut the trees, but the neighbor said no. Five years later, apparently unable to endure his obscured view any longer, Eckman hired a landscaper and gave him his marching orders: cut down any trees that blocked the view. The landscaper complied and thus this litigation.

Complicating it all was that these weren't just any 10 trees. These were large, mature oak trees. In fact, the trees were a key part of the reason Glavin purchased the lot, which adjoined another lot on which he'd built his vacation home five years earlier. The trees, as the court explained, "were ideally situated to provide shade and serve as a backdrop to a pond that Glavin planned to restore."

That Massachusetts law against cutting your neighbor's trees is silent on how to measure the damages should such cutting occur. Courts generally use either the value of the cut timber or the diminution of property value. But Glavin argued that neither would compensate him. He asked for, and the jury awarded, damages based on what it would cost him to restore the trees. This came to $30,000, the jury concluded, and the trial judge tripled that to $90,000. This was OK, the Appeals Court said, given that "any diminution in market value arising from the wrongful cutting was of less importance than was the destruction of the special value that the land and its stand of mature oak trees held for Glavin."

If there is anyone comparable to George Washington in this tree-chopping tale, it may be the landscaper, who chose not to appeal the jury's verdict against him. It is almost as if the landscaper chose to say, "I cannot tell a lie."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 4, 2008 at 12:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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