Tree Huggers

If you cut down your neighbor’s trees, and then get sued for it, can the bankruptcy court bail you out?

The answer may depend on whether you cut down the trees mistakenly or maliciously.

Surprisingly, this very issue has now been litigated in the Massachusetts bankruptcy courts at least three times. The latest decision, in the Abramowitz case, 09-04020, heard by Judge Rosenthal in the Worcester division of the court, involved homeowners in Acton, Mass. who hired a logger to clear the plot they bought for their new home. The only problem was the logger was unable to determine where the property line was, leading to the slaughter of eleven of their new neighbor’s hemlock trees. The neighbors sued and won triple damages under a generous-but-obscure Massachusetts law that covers these situations.

When the Acton homeowners filed for bankruptcy, their tree-loving neighbors refused to give up easily. The neighbors started another lawsuit in the bankruptcy court, seeking to block the homeowner’s Chapter 7 discharge. But Judge Rosenthal didn’t do that, finding that while the home owners may have been “fool hardy” when sending a logger out without a detailed property map, the mistake was not “willful and malicious” enough to prevent a discharge of the judgment under the bankruptcy code.

The debtors in the Abramowitz case were lucky to prevail, because the other two Massachusetts bankruptcy cases involving butchered trees were won by the tree huggers, er, owners. In those cases, the judges ruled that the debtors had acted specifically to spite their neighbors through the act of destroying their vegetation.

If you live in Massachusetts, better think twice before pulling the cord on that chain saw!

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