Washington’s Timber Trespass Statute, RCW 64.12.030

Todd J. Cook Edmonds LawyerWashington State is known as the “Evergreen State” for a reason – our majestic evergreen trees are abundant, and we value them.  In the Timber Trespass Statute (codified at RCW 64.12.030), Washington’s legislature has created an effective tool for landowners seeking redress for the unauthorized removal of their trees (whether timber, ornamental trees, or shrubs).

The Timber Trespass Statute creates liability:

[w]henever any person shall cut down, girdle, or otherwise injure, or carry off any tree, including a Christmas tree as defined in *RCW 76.48.020, timber, or shrub on the land of another person, or on the street or highway in front of any person’s house, city or town lot, or cultivated grounds, or on the commons or public grounds of any city or town, or on the street or highway in front therefore, without lawful authority[.][1]

A person, city, or town who suffers a timber trespass can bring a statutory claim in court against “the person committing the trespasses or any of them.”[2]  In such an action, “any judgment for the plaintiff shall be for treble [i.e., three times] the amount of damages claimed or assessed.”[3]

The purpose of the Timber Trespass Statute’s treble damages provision is to (i) punish a voluntary offender; (ii) provide a rough measure of future damages by tripling the immediate actual damages; and (iii) “discourage persons from carelessly or intentionally removing another’s merchantable shrubs or trees on the gamble that the enterprise will be profitable if actual damages only are incurred.”[4]

The tremble damages provision also seeks to preclude a self-created right of eminent domain.[5]  For example, in Happy Bunch, LLC v. Grandview North, LLC,[6] over the plaintiff’s objection, the defendant cut down and removed trees that straddled the property line between the parties’ adjoining properties.  The Court of Appeals rejected the defendants attempted “[p]rivate condemnation of another’s property in the course of business.”[7]

The Happy Bunch Court held that “[a] tree, standing directly upon the line between adjoining owners, so that the line passes through it, is the common property of both parties . . . and trespass will lie if one cuts and destroys it without the consent of the other.”[8]  The Court further held that “[w]here a defendant violates RCW 64.12.030 by willfully cutting boundary line trees and the plaintiff seeks damages based upon the value of the cut trees, the correct measure of damages is calculated by multiplying the trees’ value by the percentage of the trees’ trunks that had been growing on the plaintiff’s property.”[9]  Finally, the Court held that the plaintiff’s damages must be trebled (“the trebling provision is one that has been mandated by the legislature”[10]) because the defendant failed to prove any of the mitigating factors listed in RCW 64.12.040.  In fact, the defendant could not prove any of the mitigating factors because “where a person has been given notice that another has an ownership interest in trees, and the person nonetheless cuts them down, the actor will be liable for treble damages under RCW 64.12.030.”[11]

In addition to economic damages flowing from the loss of the trees, in appropriate circumstances, a plaintiff can recover emotional distress damages under the Timber Trespass Statute, and those damages are also subject to the treble damages mandate.[12]

The Timber Trespass Statute’s treble damages provision should serve as a powerful deterrent for those considering cutting down another property owner’s trees.  But when its deterrent effect fails, the statute provides an injured plaintiff with significant leverage in settlement negotiations and litigation.  The lawyers at Beresford Booth have extensive experience representing parties in real property disputes, including the problems that arise when a neighbor cuts down a tree they do not own.  If you find yourself in a real property dispute, we would be pleased to assist you in seeking resolution.

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[1] RCW 64.12.030.
[2] RCW 64.12.030.
[3] RCW 64.12.030.
[4] Pendergrast v. Matichuk, 186 Wn.2d 556, 567, 379 P.3d 96, 101 (2016) (quoting Broughton Lumber Co. v. BNSF Ry. Co., 174 Wn.2d 619, 625, 278 P.3d 173 (2012)).
[5] Smith v. Shiflett, 66 Wn. 2d 462, 403 P.2d 364 (1965).
[6] Happy Bunch, LLC v. Grandview North, LLC, 142 Wn.App. 81, 173 P.3d 959 (2007).
[7] Happy Bunch, 142 Wn.App. at 97.
[8] Happy Bunch, 142 Wn.App. at 93 (citations omitted).
[9] Happy Bunch, 142 Wn.App. at 94.
[10] Happy Bunch, 142 Wn.App. at 95.
[11] Happy Bunch, 142 Wn.App. at 96.
[12] Pendergrast, 186 Wn.2d at 568 (affirming $115,000 emotional distress damages award and $8,510 ecnomic damages award).