Arborist hired by HOA found not liable for injuries caused by tree

Homeowners in Fairfax County, sued the Rose Hill Reserve HOA, property manager, and an arborist when a tree fell and hurt them a year after the arborist conducted an inspection on an adjacent conservation easement. 

According to the case in August of 2017, the HOA contracted with an arborist to inspect trees in a conservation easement to assess which ones were dying or otherwise posed a threat to others. The arborist identified certain trees that the HOA removed. 11 months later, Mr. Cawlo and his daughters were playing in the backyard when a 40-foot tall tree fell on them causing injuries. The Cawlo family alleged that the arborist owed a duty to them and caused or contributed to their injuries.

The arborist’s attorney filed a demurrer to the Cawlo’s amended lawsuit, and the court dismissed the claims against him personally.

Judge John Tran observed that under Virginia case law, a property owner does not owe a duty to others who are harmed outside his property due to a “natural condition” such as a dead tree falling down. The Court found that although the HOA hired the arborist to assess trees that might be a threat to adjoining owners, he did not have a legal duty to protect the Cawlos. In this case, the arborist did nothing to make the trees more unsafe, and this particular tree was not an imminent risk of collapse during his inspection. This tree did not fall until 11 months later. 

Trees are living, natural things that lack legal qualities of manmade structures. If the development plan contemplated a 10-foot-tall fence instead of trees, and the fence fell on the family, the owners might have a stronger lawsuit. It doesn’t matter if the tree sprouted because nature brought a seed to that location or was planted by human design. These legal particulars enhance the value of trees for landscape design. For lot owners, many HOA covenants don’t treat trees as a “structure” requiring HOA approval for installation or removal.