The storm that hit the D.C. metro area on Sunday, July 25 caused widespread damage in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Four people died as a result of the storm; one on a personal watercraft on Chesapeake Bay, two from falling trees, and one from electrocution from a downed power line.
The term “acts of God” is sometimes used to describe events such as a tree falling through a house due to a storm, and the term convincingly captures the random, unpredictable nature of these storms. But the destruction these storms cause is not wholly random—often it begins with negligence on the part of property owners.
A dead or diseased tree may continue to stand for months or years until it is knocked down by strong winds. When this happens in a rural environment, courts have traditionally held that the property owner is not liable for any damage this may cause. Courts accept that farmers and other rural landowners often have a large number of trees and couldn’t possibly keep track of the health of each one.
However, courts have held urban landowners to a higher standard for the care of the trees on their property. If a dead or diseased tree were to fall and cause property damage or injure someone in a more urban environment, Maryland courts could find that the property owner should have known of the condition of the tree and therefore may be responsible.
Because one storm can cause an enormous variety of damage and significant injuries, it’s impossible to state a rule of thumb regarding the liability of an individual, municipality, or utility company when a storm blows through and wreaks havoc.
If you are injured or suffer property damage in a storm though, it’s important to discuss your legal rights with an attorney sooner rather than later. Evidence of a dead or rotten tree could be quickly turned into mulch by a tree removal crew, so it’s a good idea to at least take pictures of the damage and consult with an attorney before cleanup.
It is also worth noting that if a neighbor or other property owner knew of the dangerous condition of a tree but did not act on this knowledge, that may be compelling evidence of negligence on the property owner’s part. Thus it should go without saying that if you notice a dead or decaying tree near you, notify your neighbor about it now.
If you have any questions about how to proceed following injuries or property damage following a severe storm, don’t hesitate to consult with an experienced attorney who can advise you on your legal rights.