Legal Question in Real Estate Law in California

tree roots and sewer lines

We have two trees that our

neighbors state have caused damage

to their sewer line. They've replaced

their sewer line and are now suing

us for a minimum of $75K for

negligence, nuisance, trespassing, as

well as the $15.6K for their new line.

In the 35 years as neighbors, this is

the first complaint of a sewer

problem in their 120 year old line

since the trees were planted (with a

permit) 30 years ago. We have an

arborist's report stating that trees

are not malicious but are

opportunistic and find nutrients from

leaky sewer lines. Could we really be

liable for these claims considering 1)

there was no precedence to request

funds for cleaning out the line due to

clogging of roots, 2) the life span of a

terra cotta line is around 50 years

and not 120 years, 3) the sewer line

must have been damaged already for

roots to invade the line, and 4) we

have maintained these trees every

year and so question their claim of


In addition, we will probably be

required to remove the trees.

However, the city of San Francisco

will not allow this since the trees are

healthy. Where does that put us?

Asked on 10/29/07, 1:23 pm

2 Answers from Attorneys

Re: tree roots and sewer lines

As to the question of whether the court might issue an injunction requiring you to remove the trees, the court's injunction would trump any local ordinance or regulation enacted by the City and County of San Francisco. (The City could intervene if it really wanted the trees to remain, but such intervention is highly unlikely.) Your best defense is your non-negligence, although that will not necessarily defeat a trespass legal theory. The arborist's report could be very helpful but it probably will not win the case for you by itself.

If you still need an attorney, I have experience in real property litigation involving negligence, nuisance and trespass theories. Best of luck.

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Answered on 11/07/07, 2:32 am

Bryan Whipple Bryan R. R. Whipple, Attorney at Law

Re: tree roots and sewer lines

I don't think a judge or jury is going to be very sympathetic with these neighbors....while I agree that the tree roots constitute a trespass and perhaps a private nuisance, the damages being sought are quite excessive, in my opinion. A lawyer with experience in defending this kind of suit (not me!) should be able to defend, or settle, with a much more favorable result. I would be inclined to admit a nominal trespass and offer $1 as damages, but to deny any causation between the roots and the need to replace an already-shot sewer line. You were on the right track to hire the arborist; now look for a defense lawyer with experience specific to this problem. Also check to see whether your homeowner's insurance covers this; they probably should assume your defense.

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Answered on 10/29/07, 1:59 pm

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