By John DeGroote
How do you negotiate with your neighbor as your tree sits on his roof? The subject line only read “Tree Down,” but I began to wonder. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I scanned the rest of the message. A storm, our tree, our neighbor’s house, and a scramble to respond — all as I sat in a seminar on advanced dispute resolution techniques two time zones away. I was soon reminded of a valuable lesson in negotiation that most people never get: Do you even negotiate at all?
What’s Your First Move?
I have cited all manner of negotiation textbooks on this site, from Getting to Yes to Start with No and beyond — but if your answer to the question “What’s your first move?” was anything other than “Get the tree off his house,” take a deep breath. The roof is supporting the tree at the moment; let’s remove it before the problem is more serious than a few shingles.
As the tree guys began their work, I did the math to determine if the damage would exceed the deductible on my homeowner’s insurance — it was my tree so it was my responsibility, right? I thought I’d check, just in case . . ..
Responsibility for Tree Damage: The Law
My wife did a quick Internet search as we worked to sort this out, and learned that our tree wasn’t the first to fall on someone else’s property. According to one site and more than a few others:
The mere fact that it was [someone’s] tree is not enough to create liability for damages on the tree owner. Trees can fall through no fault of the owner’s, such as in a hurricane. In order to be able to hold the neighbor liable for damages, the homeowner must show that the treeowner’s actions somehow contributed to it falling.
Responsibility to Your Neighbor: The Rule Isn’t New
As I read the links above I realized I didn’t need to look any further for an answer. I asked myself what I’d do if my neighbor’s tree fell on my house — applying a rule I learned at Camp Laney when I was about 7. If the roles were reversed I would expect my neighbor to get his tree off my house, and nothing less.
The call was quick and friendly. I’d pay for the tree removal from his house, he’d pay for the minor damage to his roof and — although we didn’t say it — we knew our neighbors would remain our friends.
Sometimes You Don’t Negotiate at All
I’m confident that someone will tell me I wasted my money paying when I didn’t have to, and others will tell me I should have done something creative like split the difference. Perhaps those are the same folks who told Garrison Keillor that a lawsuit against his next door neighbor would be a good idea (before he moved) or maybe they’re the folks who bill their neighbors for apples that fall across the property line like this guy did.
No doubt the decision not to negotiate is often a difficult one. Sometimes it takes a bit of courage, and sometimes it costs a little money. But it’s usually worth it.
This post first appeared at Settlement Perspectives.
John DeGroote currently serves as the Liquidating Trustee to the BearingPoint, Inc. Liquidating Trust. He writes the blog Settlement Perspectives where he discusses new perspectives on settlement, negotiation, and related topics based on his experiences.
John is a former President, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary at BearingPoint, Inc., formerly known as KPMG Consulting, Inc. Prior to that, he served as the company’s Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer.
John has also practiced law at McKool Smith, P.C. and Jackson Walker, L.L.P., where he managed complex technology, commercial, and intellectual property litigation matters. He holds a J.D. from Duke University School of Law and a B.A. from Mississippi State University.