Melbourne Council ordered to pay woman $400,000 after tree cracks house

Melbourne Council ordered to pay woman $400,000 after tree cracks house

November 16, 2020

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A court has ordered a council to pay a West Melbourne woman more than $400,000 to demolish and rebuild her home after a tree it planted caused the house to crack open.

Angela Livingstone has been fighting the Melbourne City Council over the cedar tree, planted in 2009, since first noticing cracks in her single-storey Victorian house in 2012.

Angela Livingstone outside her tree-damaged house in West Melbourne.Credit:Jason South

By 2015, the damage to the entrance of her home prevented the psychiatrist from opening her front door and, by 2018, cracks in the interior entrance, hallway and front and middle bedrooms had widened up to an alarming five centimetres.

In court proceedings, which Dr Livingstone initiated in 2018, the council denied the seven-metre high tree caused the damage and said that she had contributed to it.

A large crack in Dr Angela Livingstone’s West Melbourne home.

But last week, a County Court of Victoria judge found the tree was the sole cause of the cracks and awarded Dr Livingstone $435,510.08 in damages.

The psychiatrist said she felt "pure relief" at the verdict, but added that it shouldn't have taken eight years to be resolved.

"I feel deeply annoyed with the council for firstly dismissing my concerns," she said.

"I felt at all stages that I was just being put off in the hopes that I'd go away.

"I don't think anybody else in this strip of houses, which have been affected [by the trees], would have had the resources to fight a case like this and they [council] were more or less banking on it."

The cedar tree out the front of Dr Angela Livingstone’s home.

Dr Livingstone, who lives in the home with her husband and two children, said the cracks were so wide, sunlight shone through them in the afternoon. She had been so concerned the roof would cave in that she put the contents of the two bedrooms in storage.

Dr Livingstone said she was happy the tree had been planted at first, hoping it would provide shade, but as her house began to crack she rang the council to complain.

The court judgment quotes a conversation where a council worker told Dr Livingstone that the council might need to demolish her house if she kept calling.

The council's installation of a tree root barrier in 2015 did not fix the problem.

Cracks in Dr Angela Livingstone’s home’s interior entrance, hallway and front and middle bedrooms have been getting wider each year.

"Had somebody with the appropriate qualifications come over and had a look, they would clearly have seen what was going on and been able to mitigate things at very low cost to themselves," Dr Livingstone said.

Judge Peter Lauritsen found the more than 130-year-old house's condition was an underlying weakness, but that the tree was the true cause of the cracks.

"[The] defendant ought to have known that damage would arise from the planting of this tree so close to an old building where the foundation soils are clay and highly reactive," he said.

Dr Livingstone, who wants to rebuild the house next year, said she hoped the verdict would set a precedent that made it easier for other residents with house damage due to council planted cedar trees to be paid out.

Cracks at the entrance of Dr Angela Livingstone’s home prevented her from opening the front door.

A City of Melbourne spokeswoman said the council had been made aware of the outcome and indicated it was preparing to take further action.

"Trees are an important community asset and provide a range of environmental, social and economic benefits," she said.

"Council lawyers are looking into potential next steps. At this stage, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

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