Your insurance policy may have contractual limits on the amount paid for loss of a mature tree like $500 to $750 per tree, and may also include a maximum cap on tree losses. However, those who caused the fires that damaged or destroyed trees can be sued for actual value and not some artificial contractually limited value. In addition to the fair market value of trees, California law also provides the possibility of recovering enhanced damages.
Many owners of property had trees killed or damaged by the October fires. California has specific statutes providing for damages and enhanced damages for injury to trees on property. Specifically, Section 3346 provides:
“ARTICLE 3. Penal Damages [3344 – 3346] ( Article 3 enacted 1872. )
(a) For wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood upon the land of another, or removal thereof, the measure of damages is three times such sum as would compensate for the actual detriment, except that where the trespass was casual or involuntary, or that the defendant in any action brought under this section had probable cause to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or the land of the person in whose service or by whose direction the act was done, the measure of damages shall be twice the sum as would compensate for the actual detriment, and excepting further that where the wood was taken by the authority of highway officers for the purpose of repairing a public highway or bridge upon the land or adjoining it, in which case judgment shall only be given in a sum equal to the actual detriment.”
The damage to trees and underwood on property can be compensated by double or even triple damages where there is willful or malicious conduct involved. The damages that can be tripled for tree damage or loss include the value of the replacement of the tree, the diminution in property value, the value of the tree, the cost of aftercare of the new tree, annoyance and discomfort from loss of the tree and/ or other related damages. The law may require or allow only certain remedies, for example you would not receive both the reduction in property value and the cost of a new equivalent tree.
Loss of trees can include damages for annoyance and discomfort. The damages for loss of trees is not limited to the value of the timber. Fulle v. Kanani, 7 Cal.App.5th 1305 (Cal. Ct. App. 2017). In Fulle, the California Court stated:
“The measure of damages to be doubled or trebled under sections 733 and 3346 is not limited to the value of the timber or the damage to the trees. The statutes have been interpreted to permit doubling or trebling the full measure of compensable damages for tortious injury to property. 3 (Salazar v. Matejcek (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 634, 643, 199 Cal.Rptr.3d 705 (Salazar ); Heninger v. Dunn (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 858, 861, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 (Heninger ).) “The measure of damages in California for tortious injury to property is ‘the amount which will compensate for all the detriment proximately caused thereby….’ (Civ. Code, § 3333 .) Such damages are generally determined as the difference between the value of the property before and after the injury.” (Heninger, at pp. 861–862, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 .) But “[d]iminution in market value … is not an absolute limitation; several other theories are available to fix appropriate compensation for the plaintiff’s loss.” (Id. at p. 862, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 .) For example, a plaintiff may recover the costs of restoring the property to its condition prior to the injury —even if such costs exceed diminution in value—so long as there is a valid “personal reason” to do so. (Id. at p. 864, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 ; see, e.g., Kallis v. Sones (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1274, 1279–1281, 146 Cal.Rptr.3d 419 [doubling not only the amount of damages determined for the tree, but also the amount awarded for restoring the property, including installation of a new tree and aftercare costs].)”
The Court in Fulle held the treble damages for timber loss can apply to annoyance and discomfort damages associated with the loss of trees. Specifically, the Court stated:
“In order to harmonize these statutes and give full effect to each, we conclude that annoyance and discomfort damages resulting from tortious injuries to timber or trees are subject to the damage multiplier under sections 733 and 3346. Where, as here, the jury finds willful and malicious conduct by the defendant, the trial court must award double damages and has discretion to award treble damages for annoyance and discomfort. (See Ostling, supra, 27 Cal.App.4th at p. 1742, 33 Cal.Rptr.2d 391 .)”
* This information is provided to supply relevant information concerning the PG&E lawsuits, and should not be received as legal advice. If you are already represented by legal counsel please rely upon them for information and advice. No guarantees or representations about the success of the PG&E lawsuits can be drawn from this information. You can call Hansen&Miller to get your questions answered at 707-575-1040.