In 2003, the New York State legislature enacted a law (Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law §861) to deter the illegal taking of timber. This law provides a statutory right to receive monetary damages for the cutting, removal, injury or destruction of “any underwood, tree or timber on the land of another”. This law is unique for several reasons.
First, it is one of only a few “strict liability” statutes in New York. This means that, if the cutting, removal, injury or destruction occurs without the consent of the owner, responsibility for these wrongful actions is strictly imposed. The violator cannot argue he or she acted reasonably under the circumstances or made a mistake.
Second, the statute specifies the damages the court may award. Specifically, the statute permits a court to award “treble [three times] the stumpage value of the tree or timber or two hundred fifty dollars per tree, or both and for any permanent and substantial damage caused to the land or the improvements thereon as a result of [a violation].” This means that, for example, a property owner who lost a $1,000 maple tree, could be awarded $3,250 ($1,000 value x 3 + $250) plus the value of any permanent and substantial damage caused to the land.
Third, the statute provides the potential to avoid treble damages if it can be establish by clear and convincing evidence that the person who cut the trees had cause to believe (1) the land was his or her own; (2) that he or she had an easement or right of way across such land which permitted such action; or (3) he or she had a legal right to harvest such land. However, even if the treble damages are avoided, the basic damages ($1,000 per tree + $250 + value of damage to the land) would still be owed.
If you have had trees or timber removed from your land without your consent or are engaged in the tree removal business and have questions about this law, please call one of our litigation attorneys. Similarly, if you are considering the removal of trees, you need to verify you possess the legal right to the tree and confirm your home owners insurance will apply if you are mistaken. Finally, if you plan to hire someone to remove a tree from your property, you should request written confirmation that the business has liability insurance. Our attorneys can help guide you through these scenarios.