Wrongful Cutting of Timber
North Carolina is the Tar Heel State and the nickname of the University of North Carolina is the Tar Heels. While there are several interesting origins of the name, one underlying common element is the importance of pine tar in the state. Tar and timber in the state were important industries, especially in the 18th and 19th century.
Legally then, the state legislature took special steps to protect landowners from theft of their timber. Modifying the traditional common law rule of trespass, North Carolina has a special statute N.C.G.S. Sec. 1-539.1 that governs timber cutting. When a person cuts somebody else’s timber, he is entitled to triple damages. It’s not a defense that the party doing the cutting doesn’t know it is somebody else’s property or has a reasonable belief that he has permission. I’ve had cases where a timber cutting company contracted with a person who showed them a map and a deed of the property, only later to find out that somebody else actually owned the property. While they did have an action against the person who misrepresented the ownership of the property, they were still on the hook against the actual landowner.
The damages are tripled, but the damages are calculated by the value of the timber at the stump, or the stumpage value. Essentially that means the value of the timber after reasonable costs are deducted for the logger, truck driver, and the mill. Essentially this is the net profit of the timber “crop” rather than the gross.
Even so, if you have several acres of timber that were clear cut by a timber company, you could have significant damages. In recent years however, as North Carolina has become more and more urban, and suburban, the more typical timber cutting case is the neighbor who cuts down your favorite shade trees on your property. Even tripled, the timber value of some shade trees on your property may not reach $100. In those cases, there is an alternative measure of damages that could be used.
The alternative damage would be the traditional damages for any trespass or damage to real property. That is the difference between the market value of the property with the trees and without the trees. This type of damage may be more difficult to quantify than a count of stumps and a check on mill prices, but if it can be done, it may yield greater damage than the stump value. This type of damage however is not tripled by the statute.
The courts have allowed replacement cost as some evidence of the difference in value of the land before and after the cutting. The replacement cost would be how much you would have to pay an arborist to replant a tree of the same type and age. For mature trees this would be far more than the commercial value of the tree as timber. Replacement cost is just some evidence of the difference in market value. A defendant can produce appraisals or real estate opinions of market value of the property to argue that full replacement cost should not be provided.
This post has been amended to reflect a change in the North Carolina statutes on timber cutting and current North Carolina caselaw regarding replacement costs.