Shady Business: Tree Litigation in a State Trial Court

In the past week, 160,000 actors and media personalities from SAG-AFTRA joined the 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) who have been on the picket line since May. The reason for the collective action was the breakdown in negotiations between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios.

NBCUniversal’s Tree Trimming Incident

In the midst of this labor dispute, NBCUniversal is facing scrutiny from the Los Angeles City Controller’s office. The office has initiated an investigation after NBCUniversal significantly trimmed a row of trees outside its studios. This pruning took place while members of SAG-AFTRA were picketing the company executives, and it resulted in the elimination of shade during a searing heatwave.

Municipal Tree Laws: Not Just a Trivial Legal Specialty

According to Kenneth Mejia, the LA City Controller, the trees under scrutiny are under the city’s management, not NBCUniversal’s responsibility. He further emphasized that trees should undergo trimming every five years, rather than on an annual basis. Additionally, the Los Angeles Public Works Department confirmed that it did not issue any tree trimming permits for the area outside Universal’s offices.

Case Studies: The Significance of Tree Laws in Los Angeles

At first glance, municipal tree laws may seem inconsequential, perceived as a trivial legal specialty. However, within the modern urban landscape, where concrete and steel dominate the skyline, the significance of these laws cannot be overstated. A swift review of the archives at Trellis brings to light the crucial aspects of tree law in the county, uncovering issues that entangle our understandings of accessibility, liability, responsibility, and the importance of precise wording.

  1. In 2021, The City of La Cañada Flintridge filed for a preliminary injunction against Tatevik Ghukasyan to prevent her and her agents from cutting down and removing the protected oak trees situated on her property. Among the 43 protected trees on her land, approximately 31 to 33 had already been unlawfully cut and removed by the defendant to facilitate development. The court approved the application for a preliminary injunction. (Case No. 21STCV39043)
  2. On March 28, 2017, Akop Jack Ananyan filed a complaint against Sarkis Semizyan, Marine Semizyan, and Semizyan IV, LLC, alleging negligence and premises liability. The plaintiff claims that on April 19, 2015, while walking on a sidewalk, he sustained injuries when he was unexpectedly struck by falling palm tree fronds from the defendants’ property. According to the plaintiff, on or around May 17, 2018, the defendants removed and destroyed the palm trees in question without providing any notice to him or his counsel. This action, the plaintiff argues, has hindered their access to and examination of the trees. The plaintiff had intended to designate an arborist and a physics expert to inspect the palm trees and obtain expert opinions on their care, maintenance, as well as the trajectory and velocity of falling fronds. However, due to the defendants’ destruction of the trees, the plaintiff claims he has been unjustly denied the opportunity to do so. In response, the plaintiff requested that the defendants’ answer be struck and defaults be entered against them. However, the court determined that neither terminating sanctions nor evidentiary sanctions are appropriate in this case. (Case No. BC655511)
  3. On September 12, 2018, Stephen Lashbrook filed a complaint against the City of Los Angeles, James P. Argyropoulos, and Argyropoulos 2013 Irrevocable Trust (referred to as “moving defendant”). The complaint alleges negligence and a dangerous condition of public property due to a trip-and-fall incident that occurred on January 26, 2017. The trip occurred on a sidewalk that was raised by tree roots from trees located on the parkway adjacent to the Sunset Property. According to common law, a landowner is not obligated to repair sidewalks abutting a public street and is not held responsible for injuries sustained by pedestrians due to defects in those sidewalks (Jordan v. City of Sacramento [2007] 148 Cal.App.4th 1487, 1490). However, under Streets and Highways Code, Section 5610, abutting property owners are required to address defects in the sidewalk, irrespective of whether they caused the defects (Id.). The Sidewalk Accident Decisions Doctrine further clarifies that abutting property owners can only be held liable to the public if they either created the defect or exercised control over the abutting sidewalk (Jordan, supra, 148 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1490-1491). The City of Los Angeles, as the defendant and cross-complainant, owns the sidewalk and parkway adjacent to the Sunset Property. The evidence presented by the moving defendant indicates that they did not create the crack in the sidewalk where the plaintiff tripped, as they were not responsible for planting the trees that caused the crack. Additionally, the evidence shows that the moving defendant did not exercise control over the trees, the parkway where the trees are located, or the sidewalk where the plaintiff tripped. Consequently, there is no evidence to suggest that the moving defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. As the burden of proof shifted to the plaintiff, they failed to provide evidence that created a genuine dispute over whether the moving defendant either created the crack or maintained the crack or the trees responsible for the crack. Thus, the court found that summary judgment is appropriately granted in favor of the moving defendant. (Case No. BC721694)
  4. Yubia Sandoval, the plaintiff, claims to have sustained injuries from a trip and fall on a public sidewalk within the City of Los Angeles. She filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, Judy Wizel (referred to as Doe 1), and Judy Wizel Trust (referred to as Doe 2). The incident occurred in front of 6320 Whitsett Avenue, an apartment building located in North Hollywood. The photographs taken at the time of the incident reveal a severely uplifted sidewalk adjacent to a tree on the parkway between the sidewalk and the street. A survey conducted by an expert on behalf of Wizel establishes that the tree, parkway, and sidewalk in question do not fall within the property line of 6320 Whitsett Avenue; instead, they belong to the public right-of-way. Plaintiff’s arborist offers an opinion that other trees located on Defendant Wizel’s property might have also contributed to the sidewalk uplift. However, the expert’s opinion lacks sufficient foundation to support this claim. At best, Plaintiff’s expert only establishes that Wizel’s trees might have contributed to unrelated defects in the sidewalk. (Case No. BC713130)
  5. On June 18, 2014, Linda Reitman, the plaintiff, initiated legal proceedings to claim damages resulting from a trip and fall incident that occurred on July 19, 2013. In her First Amended Complaint (FAC), she brings forth two causes of action: 1) alleging a dangerous condition of public property, and 2) asserting a breach of Government Code section 815.6. The defendant, City of Los Angeles (“City”), filed a demurrer against Plaintiff’s second cause of action. In the second cause of action, Plaintiff contends that the City breached Government Code section 815.6 by failing to fulfill the mandatory duty imposed by California Streets and Highway Code sections 5611, et seq., and Los Angeles Municipal Code sections 62.161, et seq. These provisions oblige the City to inspect city sidewalks and trees, and remove obstructions caused by tree roots to ensure public safety. However, the City argues that the Streets and Highway Code and Municipal Code sections cited by the Plaintiff do not impose a mandatory duty but rather grant discretionary powers to the City. They rely on the Guzman v. County of Monterey (2009) 46 Cal.4th 887 decision, which explains that the use of the term “shall” in a statute doesn’t necessarily create a mandatory duty if other factors indicate discretion in its application (Id., at 899). In particular, the Municipal Code section 62.168 states that the Board “shall” cut down a tree if it appears to be dead, dangerous, liable to fall, or obstructing public travel. The Court finds that determining whether a sidewalk is “out of repair” or if a tree seems “dangerous” involves enough discretion, and it doesn’t qualify as a mandatory duty under Government Code section 815.6. The City is required to exercise its judgment in making these assessments. As a result, the Court sustains the City’s Demurrer to Plaintiff’s second cause of action, and Government Code section 815.6 does not apply in this case (Case No. BC548892).

In the shadow of these examples, the ongoing scrutiny of NBCUniversal’s tree-trimming activities underscores the larger, intertwined narratives of our collective responsibility towards our urban environment and the significant role municipal tree laws play in safeguarding these vital green spaces.

Prior to founding Trellis, Nicole Clark was a business litigation and labor and employment attorney who handled litigation in both state and federal courts. She regularly represented multinational corporations in claims ranging from high-profile trade secret disputes to complex class-action litigation. Frustrated by sending internal emails and collecting anecdotes on judges in order to make strategic case recommendations, she built Trellis to solve her own need for access to data, information, and analytics at the state trial court level. Prior to law school, Nicole attended Bard College, beginning her college coursework at the age of sixteen. She graduated with honors from University of Massachusetts Amherst with a BA in Journalism, and received her Juris Doctorate from Rutgers School of Law in Newark, NJ. Nicole sat for the Bar Exam in California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and remains licensed to practice law in all three states.