Phil Querin Q&A: Trees - Liability and Responsibility

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November 19, 2012

Question. Our community is relatively small and the spaces are oversized. Large trees are located on many of them. Occasionally, a resident asks us to thin or top some of the trees on their space, because of fear that during high winds they could break, damaging homes and injuring people. I have been under the impression that tree maintenance is a tenant responsibility under Oregon law. If so, what is our liability if tree limbs – or entire trees - break during bad weather?

Answer: Oregon law addresses tenant responsibilities in ORS 90.740. Subsection (4)(h) says that except as provided in the rental agreement it is the tenant’s responsibility to “(m)aintain, water and mow or prune any trees, shrubbery or grass on the rented space….” In my opinion, this provision is a good example of how not to draft a statute. Trees are not “mowed” and grass is not “pruned.” However, it is correct that “pruning” of trees [whatever that entails] is a tenant responsibility unless otherwise provided in the rental or lease agreement. As with everything these days, the Internet is replete with discussions and definitions of pruning. One example is found here: Regardless of your reference source, it is clear that there are many, many, different types of pruning, depending upon the goal sought. You can prune to “teach” a tree or shrub how to grow in a particular fashion; you can prune for appearance; you can prune for maintenance, i.e. the health of the tree or shrub. Lastly, you prune for safety - this is called “hazard pruning.” Putting my “lawyer’s hat” on and returning to my law school roots, I recall a rule of interpretation called “ejusdem generis”. Here is one definition: “(eh-youse-dem generous) v adj. Latin for "of the same kind," used to interpret loosely written statutes. Where a law lists specific classes of persons or things and then refers to them in general, the general statements only apply to the same kind of persons or things specifically listed. Example: if a law refers to automobiles, trucks, tractors, motorcycles and other motor-powered vehicles, "vehicles" would not include airplanes, since the list was of land-based transportation.” Applying that legal rule to ORS 90.740(4)(h), it could reasonably be argued that the words “maintain, water and mow or prune” are intended to refer to normal and routine landscaping activities. In other words, a tenant’s landscaping responsibility for his or her own space is limited to normal and routine activities. In other words, imposing a statutory duty and financial responsibility of “hazard pruning” on manufactured housing residents was unlikely. ORS 90.730(3) provides that “(f)or purposes of this section, a rented space is considered inhabitable if it substantially lacks: (e) At the time of commencement of the rental agreement, buildings, grounds and appurtenances that are kept in every part safe for normal and reasonably foreseeable uses, clean, sanitary and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents and vermin [underscore mine];” Thus, there is little question that as of the commencement of the tenancy, it is a landlord duty to make sure the community grounds, including the spaces and common areas, are safe for “normal and reasonably foreseeable uses….” Is a 40-foot fir tree “safe” at the commencement of the tenancy? Can it be made safe? If it is made safe, e.g. by hazard trimming, will it stay safe for the entire duration of the tenancy? It seems to me that a community landlord has two choices: 1. Doing nothing, and relying upon a poorly drafted statute for absolute immunity when a giant tree falls, killing an entire family during a windstorm; or 2. Envision the Doomsday Scenario – i.e. assume that such a disaster could occur regardless what a poorly drafted statute says, and that a multi-million wrongful death lawsuit will surely be filed by some aggressive plaintiff’s attorney, arguing to a jury that the landlord owns the ground, owns the trees coming out of the ground, and is simply trying to avoid the financial responsibility to thin and top dangerous trees. So my advice would be the following: (a) If you are in doubt about your legal responsibilities because the law is unclear, and (b) where doing nothing could place lives in danger, it is far better to undertake the financial responsibility of hazard pruning on a regular basis. In short, relying upon ORS 90.740(4)(h) when it comes to trimming and topping potentially dangerous trees, could be a serious and costly mistake.

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