When someone destroys your crops and trees, consider this law

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Friday, October 22nd, 2021
ATVs in field

Fall often brings us questions about what a landowner can do when someone harms their crops, fields, and trees.  We’ve heard many stories of hunters, four-wheelers, snowmobilers, timber harvesters and others tearing up hayfields, causing corn and bean losses, harming trees, or taking timber.  Unfortunately, those incidents are not new to Ohio.  Back in 1953, the Ohio legislature enacted a law that addressed these types of problems.  In 1974, legislators revised the law to strengthen its penalty provisions, part of an effort to reform Ohio’s criminal laws.  That law still offers remedies that can help a landowner today.

The reckless destruction of vegetation law.  Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Section 901.51, the “reckless destruction of vegetation law,” is simple and straightforward.  It states that:

“No person, without privilege to do so, shall recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree or crop standing and growing on the land of another or upon public land.”

Note the word “recklessly,” as that’s important to the statute.  Under Ohio law, a person  behaves recklessly if he disregards the risk that his actions are likely to cause certain results, such as harm or injury.  “Heedless indifference to the consequences” is another way to explain the term.  A person who flies through a hayfield on a four-wheeler, taking no precautions to avoid harming the crop, would likely fit this definition of behaving recklessly.  A timber harvester who ignores the marked property line and takes trees on the other side of it could also be behaving recklessly.

Criminal and civil options.  The recklessness element of a person’s behavior is why the law incorporates criminal charges.  A violation of ORC 901.51 is a fourth-degree criminal misdemeanor and could result in a fine of $250 and up to 30 days in jail.  What is useful to landowners, however, is that when legislators amended the law in 1974, they added “treble damages” to allow a harmed party to collect three times the value of the property destroyed.  If the value of hay lost to the four-wheeler was $500, for example, the treble damages provision allows the landowner to collect three times that amount, or $1,500.  Many court cases involve tree situations, and three times the value of a tree can result in a hefty award for the harmed landowner.

Another benefit of the reckless destruction of vegetation law is that a landowner doesn’t have to rely on a criminal charge being brought by local law enforcement.   While local law enforcement could bring a criminal charge against an offender and if successful, could request the treble damages for the landowner.  But if law enforcement does not bring a criminal charge, Ohio courts have held that a harmed party may bring a civil action against the offender and utilize the law’s treble damages provision.  Those treble damages can make it worthwhile to litigate the issue as a civil action.

The next time you’re frustrated by someone destroying your crops, trees and vegetation, the reckless destruction of vegetation law might be helpful.  If you can prove that the person was reckless and indifferent to causing the harm, consider using this powerful little law to remedy the situation.