Law of Torts

When trees on land adjoining a public place fall upon it, the owner is liable if he knew the falling tree was dangerous.

The law is stated in Winfield and Jolowicz on Tort (13th, 1989 ed., p.415) in these words :

If the damage is done owing to the collapse of the projection on the highway or by some other mischief traceable to it, the occupier of the premises on which it stood is liable if he knew of the defect or ought, on the investigation, to have known of it. At any rate, this is the rule with respect to a thing that is naturally on the premises e.g. a tree.

In Clerk and Lindsell on Torts (16th, 1989 ed., at pages 546-547 para , 10.122) the-law on trees is summarised as follows :

The fall of trees, branches and other forms of natural growth is governed by the rules of negligence. When trees on land adjoining a public highway fall upon it, the owner is liable if he knew or ought to have known that the falling tree was dangerous. He is not bound to call in an expert to examine the trees, but he is bound to keep a look out and to take notice of such signs as would indicate to a prudent landowner that there was a danger of a tree falling….the land-owner was held liable when the tree which fell had been dying for some years before and had become a danger which should have been apparent to an ordinary landowner.

In Charlesworth & Percy on Negligence (8th, 1990 ed., at page 668) the law is stated in these terms :

…when a tree, which had been dying for some years and should have been known to be dangerous by an ordinary landowner, fell and caused damage, the owner was held liable. (Brown v. Harrison (1947) W.N.191.

  1. In Hale v. Hants (1947) 2 All ER 628, which is a case of branches of a tree having struck the windows of an omnibus and a piece of glass having struck the plaintiff in the eye, it was held that in the absence of any reason to suspect danger from an overhanging tree or some similar obstruction a driver who is driving close to the kerb when his vehicle is struck by the branch of the tree is not making an unreasonable use of the highway. It was further held that the county council should have known that trees grow and throw out their branches and therefore it was their obligation to see that the tree in its natural growth was curbed in such a way as not to hinder the reasonable use of the highway .

By a catena of decisions, the law is well settled that if there is a tree standing on the defendant’s land which is dried or dead and for that reason may fall and the defect is one which is either known or should have been known to the defendant, then the defendant is liable for any injury caused by the fall of the tree (see Brown Vs Harrison (1947) 63 LTR 484; Quinn v. Scott (1965) 1 W.L.R. 1004, Mackie v. Dumbartonshire County Council (1927) W.N. 247. The duty of the owner/occupier of the premises by the side of the road whereon persons lawfully pass by, extends to guarding against what may happen just by the side of the premises on account of anything dangerous on the premises. The premises must be maintained in a safe state of repair. The owner/occupier cannot escape the liability for injury caused by any dangerous thing existing on the premises by pleading that he had employed a competent person to keep the premises in safe repairs. In Municipal Corporation of Delhi Vs. Subhagwanti and Others, a clock tower which was 80 years old collapsed in Chandni Chowk Delhi causing the death of a number of persons. Their Lordships held that the owner could not be permitted to take a defence that he neither knew nor ought to have known the danger. “The owner is legally responsible irrespective of whether the damage is caused by a patent or a latent defect,” – said their Lordships. In our opinion the same principle is applicable to the owner of a tree standing by the side of a road. If the tree is dangerous in the sense that on account of any disease or being dead the tree or its branch is likely to fall and thereby injure any passer-by then such tree or branch must be removed so as to avert the danger to life. It is pertinent to note that it is not the defence of the Municipal Corporation that vis major or an act of God such as storm, tempest, lightning or extraordinary heavy rain had occurred causing the fall of the branch of the tree and hence the Corporation was not liable.

Source judgment 

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Categories: Law of Torts

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