Question: I have a very tall Mulberry tree that casts shade into my neighbor’s backyard. My neighbor is planning to put a pool in his backyard, and he approached me about taking down the tree so that he can have ample sunshine by the pool and possibly put some solar on his roof. He has offered to take the tree down by hiring an arborist totally at his cost. I agreed to the deal. He brought a few people out to look at the tree and bid on the project. Since he is paying he chose the tree trimmer, but I’m not sure if his tree trimmer is licensed. Do I need to worry about whether his guy has a license since he’s the one paying for it? Can I get in trouble if he hires someone who is unlicensed for this job?

Answer: Home ownership is expensive, and it is easy to accept the lowest bid for any improvement project. Whether it be a bathroom remodel, driveway paving, or tree work, no one wants to pay more for the job than necessary. Unlicensed contractors typically deliver the lowest bids, but the buyer should be aware that an unlicensed contractor does not offer the legal protections to the homeowner that a licensed counterpart does.

Both you and your neighbor should make sure that you are working with someone who is licensed by the Contractor’s State License Board, not just a handyman. In the State of California, tree removal, stump removal, and pruning of a tree more than 15 feet in height requires a license. The main reason to hire a licensed contractor is to avoid a crippling lawsuit against you, the homeowner, for someone injured on the job.

The legal consequences of hiring an unlicensed contractor who is injured is that different employment relationships may arise. If a homeowner hires someone to do work that requires a contractor’s license and that person is not licensed, then the law treats that person as the homeowner’s employee. In addition, any person working under that person also becomes the homeowner’s employee.

California courts have allowed an unlicensed contractor, or anyone working under that contractor, to sue the homeowner directly for damages. In other words, you may find yourself personally responsible for the five Paul Bunyans in your backyard hanging 20 feet high in the air swinging chainsaws in every direction. If one falls from the tree and hurts himself, he or she will turn to you, the homeowner, in court to provide damages for injuries. For significant injuries, the amount of damages can be high – above and beyond what a typical homeowner’s insurance policy may provide.

On the other hand, when you hire a licensed contractor, the contractor assumes the liability for injuries on the job. If a licensed tree trimmer is injured, the liability will fall on the person or company with whom you made the contract. In addition, a licensed contractor also must carry a surety bond, its own type of insurance policy that protects consumers and even the contractor’s employees from bad conduct on the part of the contractor.

The peculiar part about your situation is that you, technically speaking, are not the one hiring the tree removal crew. That may distinguish you from the typical homeowner who does the hiring. But the tree is on your property, and your agreement with the neighbor to allow the crew onto your property to perform the service will likely put you in the same boat. Should something happen, the injured party would likely sue you and your neighbor, claiming that the two of you acted in concert.

When hiring someone to perform work on your property, it is wise to check the license. The license may add to the overall cost, but it may be worth the peace of mind.

Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm providing family law, estate planning and trust litigation representation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at

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