Landowner’s liability for trees

The recent High Court case of Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd v Hind (2014) has reconsidered the landowner’s duty to inspect trees on their land. The case arose through an incident in December 2009 when the stem of an ash tree on the defendant’s land fell on to the railway line and damaged a train which struck it.

The claimant rail company argued that because the tree was next to a railway line, even in the absence of any trigger or warning sign, the defendant owed a duty to have the tree regularly inspected by an arboriculturalist.

The court rejected that argument and found that a landowner was required to act reasonably and prudently. The obligation was discharged by carrying out informal or preliminary inspections of their trees, especially if those boarded a railway line or the public highway, but that (provided the landowner could fulfil that obligation – i.e. they were not infirm or absent) they were not initially required to engage the services of an arboriculturalist.

On the facts of the case, the defendant had sufficient knowledge to be capable of fulfilling that obligation. She was a keen gardener with reasonable knowledge of trees and knew how to recognise growth on tree bark and how to recognise the signs of a healthy tree.

The finding in the case will be a relief to landowners who could have faced an obligation to employ a specialist had the court found the other way.  However, landowners should still have regard to trees on their property and inspect regularly and where concerns are noted, an arboriculturalist should be employed.

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