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Damage to Neighboring Property

April 21, 1996|Special to The Times

Just as your liability for injury to people turns on the question of negligence, so does your liability for damage to someone else's property.

Traditionally, property owners were not responsible for damage caused by falling tree limbs and other natural occurrences on their property but only for damage caused by artificial conditions, such as an unsecured board from your lumber pile being carried by the wind through your neighbor's plate-glass window. The current trend, though, is for courts to apply an ordinary standard of care and negligence in both cases.

So keep an eye on your trees. If there's visible rot, better take the limb off before it falls on your neighbor's new car. Maintain your property well enough that, short of a tornado or hurricane, the wind won't blow things from your place over to your neighbor's.

If you excavate near the property line and cause your neighbor's land to subside, you may be liable whether their house is affected or not. Check with a civil or geological engineer if you're planning to excavate and think you have reason to be concerned. Your builder or contractor will know of one, or you can find one yourself through the Yellow Pages.

Similarly, if changes you make to the contours of your land cause excess rain water to pour onto your neighbor's property and result in damage, you may be liable. If you're planning to change the contours of your land, ask an attorney or your local housing authority about your state law.

Other Areas of Concern

* Damage by children. As a rule, you're liable for injury and damage caused by your minor children, though such damage will usually be covered by your homeowner's policy. However, if your children are over 13 and intentionally cause damage, your homeowner's policy probably won't pick up the cost. Teach the kids to respect other people and their property and make sure they learn those lessons well.

* Waterfront areas. If you live along a river or stream, state and local laws designed to protect wildlife habitat may preclude your clearing brush or changing the lay of the land. Don't do it without checking with your state's department that deals with fish, wildlife and parks, usually located in your state capital.

* Wetlands. Federal laws govern the draining and filling of wetlands. If you have places on your property that are boggy even part of the year, avoid serious legal trouble by finding out what your responsibilities are before making changes. You might start with your state's department of environmental protection. The federal Office of Wetlands Protection in Washington, D.C., also might be able to help.

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Adapted from the book "The American Bar Assn.'s Guide to Home Ownership." Copyright 1995 by the American Bar Assn. Reprinted by permission of Times Books, a division of Random House Inc.

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