California Lawyer Magazine


Out on a Limb - Aging trees help support a new legal specialty
California Lawyer Magazine, November 2001

Barri Kaplan Bonapart says many of her embattled clients can't see the forest for the trees, which is a common enough complaint. But in her cases --which often pit neighbor against neighbor-- those trees may be a row of blue gum Eucalyptus or a stand of blackwood Acacia.

Bonapart's specialty is tree law, and her law firm, Bonapart & Associates, is based in Corte Madera, which is incidentally Spanish for cut wood. Bonapart carved out this niche for herself more than ten years ago when she won $100,000 in a combined arbitration award and insurance settlement for a family friend whose neighbor had done some overzealous tree trimming. When it comes to trees "people get pretty crazy," Bonapart observes. "And the things they're willing to do to each other and each other's property are really unbelievable."

As part of her business, Bonapart represents both plaintiffs and defendants in disputes that can involve personal injury and property damage, ordinance enforcement, nuisance, and breach of contract issues. She also guides property owners who are building or remodeling, acts as outside general counsel to tree-care companies, and advises other attorneys and municipalities. It's a branch of law that can get surprisingly complex, she observes, touching upon both civil law and penal codes, among others.

The demand for tree-law expertise is likely to grow over the next few years for a couple of reasons. One has to do with the decay of the urban forests that have been planted over the past 100 years. Those forests are typically made up of fast-growing, highly flammable, native and nonnative trees that grow to the point that they become a hazard to both people and homes.

As Ray Moritz, a consulting arborist in Mill Valley, observes: "These trees are the punk rockers of the tree world. They live fast, die young, and look beautiful doing it."

In the mid '90's, Bonapart represented a Bay Area prison guard who was seriously hurt after his car collided with a blue gum Eucalyptus that had fallen in the middle of the highway during a fierce rainstorm. The guard had talked to five lawyers, but none wanted to take on the case because they said the injury was an "act of God." Bonapart thought otherwise. "God doesn't plant rows of blue gum Eucalyptus, God doesn't spray pesticide around the roots, and God doesn't neglect to keep them properly trimmed," she pointed out. In the end, Bonapart obtained from the state of California and a private rancher a six-figure settlement, as well as an agreement to remove the remaining trees in the row.

Another thing that's likely to increase tree litigation is that more and more municipalities are passing laws either to preserve trees or to regulate residents' rights to views. (Contrary to popular opinion, the state gives no common law right to a view.) Bonapart readily admits that the combatants in these disputes can often lose perspective, especially in affluent communities where people have a lot of discretionary time and money. "The trees become a lightning rod for other issues," she notes, "Like, 'Oh, you didn't invite me to your daughter's wedding,' or 'You played your music too loud last summer.'"

In this vein, Bonapart represented a property owner some time ago who lodged a view claim against a couple, but not before the couple counterclaimed by charging that their neighbors and, in fact, the entire neighborhood, had formed an anti-Semitic "cabal" to run them out of town. "It was outrageous," Bonapart says. "There was no basis for that allegation, and the wife wasn't even Jewish."

"Tree disputes are sometimes worse than family law disputes," she adds, "At least with family disputes, one of them can move away."

 -- Lucia Hwang



Reprinted with permission from the November 2001 issue of California Lawyer magazine.

2001 Daily Journal Corp. San Francisco, California.


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