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July 18, 2018

Legal Update
Dylan Sanders

Stare decisis prevails: SJC refuses to adopt “Hawaii Rule” in disputes between neighbors over healthy trees in Massachusetts

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The Supreme Judicial Court has refused to give property owners a right of action against neighbors for injuries resulting from healthy trees growing on an adjacent property.  In the decision, Shiel v. Rowell, the SJC re-affirmed the continued validity of the so-called “Massachusetts rule,” and refused the plaintiff’s invitation to adopt what some argue is a more modern standard, known as the “Hawaii rule,” that would give property owners a right to sue over injuries caused by healthy trees growing on a neighbor’s property.

Property owners have always been able to unilaterally prune branches overhanging their property from a neighbor’s trees, as well as to remove intruding roots threatening damage to such structures as drain pipes, sewer lines and foundations.  And owners of diseased, unhealthy or dead trees could be held liable for trespass and/or creating a nuisance on their neighbor’s property by such compromised trees.  Massachusetts courts have long held, however, that property owners are free to use all of their land to grow trees, and neighbors could not ask for judicial relief either for the cost of pruning healthy trees or from injuries allegedly caused by healthy trees. The SJC most recently affirmed this rule in a 1983 case. Simply put, self-help has been the lone remedy for nearly a century where it comes to property owners facing risks posed by healthy trees growing on a neighboring property.

Plaintiff in Shiel asked the Court to overturn this long line of precedent and adopt the “Hawaii rule,” pursuant to which a property owner could seek judicial relief requiring a neighbor to prune the branches or roots of a healthy tree, and to pay for damages caused by a neighboring tree’s branches and roots, even where the tree is healthy.  (Like the Massachusetts rule, the Hawaii rule gives a landowner the right of self-help.)  Plaintiff argued that the Massachusetts rule is outdated, because today people are living on smaller lots and in closer proximity to one another.

Stare decisis

Plaintiff acknowledged that she was asking the SJC to reverse a long line of prior precedent and create a new rule. The issue, therefore, was whether the court wished to follow the legal doctrine of stare decisis, a Latin phrase meaning “to stand on the decisions.”  The doctrine fosters certainty and predictability, and protects the interests of those who have relied on prior decisions.  The doctrine of stare decisis also works to discourage parties from challenging and re-litigating settled precedent.  Furthermore, if there is a strong movement that settled precedent should no longer be followed or applied, there is often a legislative fix for the issue, so stare decisis plays a role in protecting the separation of powers as well and protecting the integrity of the judicial system.

As the SJC emphasized in Shiel, however, the doctrine of stare decisis does not mean the law on a particular subject remains immutable after precedent has been established absent new legislation on the issue. Indeed, in Shiel the SJC openly and loudly solicited challenges to outdated decisions, saying, “We invite challenges to antiquated laws.” The SJC cautioned, however, that “[o]verruling precedent requires something above and beyond mere disagreement” with prior analyses.

The Shiel Decision

To overturn the Massachusetts rule, the court said that it would need to find that the rule was “outdated and no longer fit the circumstances of contemporary life.”  And the court found that there “was no reason to consider the Massachusetts rule outdated.” Indeed, in the court’s view there were many reasons that the rule continues to have merit today. For one thing, the rule allowing self-help but precluding litigation over healthy trees “simplifies assignment of liability” and thus minimizes legal costs to property owners and neighbors.  As for plaintiff’s argument that in contemporary life, particularly in urban settings, trees are more likely to pose a risk of injuries to neighbors than they did in the early twentieth century, the court said even assuming this were true it was also easier for a property owner to recognize and address potential harm from a neighboring tree.  Finally, the court expressed a reluctance to categorically classify trees that are healthy as nevertheless a potential “nuisance.”

In sum, the “development” in Shiel was that the law has not, in fact, changed, after nearly a century.  Owners of healthy trees do not have an obligation to prevent injury to neighboring property owners from overhanging branches and intruding roots, but those neighboring property owners may still use self-help, such as pruning and root removal, to prevent injuries to, or on, their property.  Indeed, in many circumstances they may have a legal obligation to do so.

The court’s discussion of stare decisis highlights the reality that persuading the SJC (the nation’s oldest appellate court) to reconsider settled decisions is easier than it is to get the court to actually overrule an old doctrine, an observation that has implications for state court cases of all kinds that involve settled principles of Massachusetts common law.