If you work in the tree biz, you constantly face a peculiar dilemma. It’s one you face almost every day, and I believe it’s a dilemma that’s peculiar to our trade: What do you say to a customer who claims that they were mistreated — not by you, but by someone else?

  • “Did they plant my tree wrong?”
  • “Shouldn’t they have removed the guy wires?”
  • “Did their weed killer kill my plants?”
  • “Did the contractor hurt my trees when they regraded or trenched?”
  • “Did the power company wreck my trees when they cleared the wires?

Oftentimes, yes, they did indeed damage the trees in question. So, what do we tell our customers? What’s our obligation to our fellow tradesmen? Where does our due diligence lie when we’re asked to throw that contractor under the bus?

First example

As a consultant, my clients pay me to address these types of questions. I’m not allowed to dodge them nor be evasive with my answer. Sometimes customers put me in real sticky situations. Case in point: An attorney called a few months ago and said she was representing a gas company that was being sued. A homeowner who uses one of their affiliates was severely burned when their propane tank exploded. The house was a total loss in the fire and the homeowner barely escaped with his life.

Coincidentally, only two days prior to the explosion, a tree care company wrote a tree removal estimate at the home.

The estimator failed to report the odor to the homeowner (who wasn’t there at the time) or to the gas company. This accident occurred in a small town where everybody knows everybody, and perhaps foolishly, the estimator admitted to the father of the burn victim to smelling gas while on the property. She told the father that the odor was strong enough to make her feel nauseous, though she was also pregnant at the time and sensitive to smells.

The attorney, hoping the tree care company could share the costs if the gas company lost the lawsuit, wanted to know whether I thought the tree service had a professional duty to report the odor to the appropriate parties and, if need be, wondered if I’d be willing to testify as to my opinion of their actions, or lack thereof.

Second example

An insurance agent recently contacted me about a claim against one of their clients. A local tree care company had pruned several oak trees during the wrong time of year. This mistake resulted in an oak wilt infestation. Several valuable trees were lost and the disease also threatened some nearby oaks.

The insurance agent said the diagnosis of oak wilt was confirmed by university experts, who said the cause was almost certainly due to the spring pruning.

The agent asked me to review all the documents and then tell her whether or not I thought the tree care company was at fault. She also wanted to know whether the appraised damages were reasonable. Adding fuel to the fire, there was a clause in the claim about assuming responsibility for future damages if the disease spread. That kind of open-ended clause will make any insurance agent’s head spin.

Third example

A business owner called last fall and asked me if the value placed on the neighbor’s trees was reasonable. (The owner felt the amount was grossly exaggerated.) By court order, the business had been allowed to remove the neighbor’s trees despite the neighbor’s wishes to the contrary. The reason the judge allowed the tree removals was the fact that the business owner’s building is historic and needed to be renovated. Located in a downtown district, space is extremely limited. To gain access for the heavy equipment to their building, the neighbor’s trees had to go.

The neighbors complained to the judge they wanted to be paid for their losses. The judge agreed. But the question the business owner set before me was, “Was the neighbor’s tree appraisal excessive or not?”

Considerations to make

In all three cases, I’m asked (and paid) to offer my opinion of another professional’s work.

  • Was the estimator negligent when she didn’t report the gas odor?
  • Did the second tree care company act unprofessionally when they pruned the oaks out of season?
  • Was the tree appraiser in the third case flagrantly inaccurate or worse?

All three are delicate questions and they certainly placed me in an awkward position. Yet, if you work for a tree care company, who hasn’t been asked uncomfortable questions or to comment on another company’s work?

There’s good reason for that. We care for trees that are surrounded by people. We don’t normally work in the forest. We work in the city, suburbs, rural homes, farms and businesses. We work where trees are constantly impacted by human activity. The trees are damaged by people frequently; be they excavators, lawn maintenance companies, landscapers, architects or power line tree trimmers, not to mention the property owners themselves. If you think about it, many of the insect and disease problems we face are caused by people, where invasive pests are involved.

So, the question remains: When customers are mistreated — intentional or otherwise — what’s our obligation to them?

One of the best answers I’ve heard to this difficult question came from one of my early mentors, who had a knack for simplifying difficult issues. He told me to clearly state what the proper tree planting guidelines are. Tell your customer what backfill or trenching or soil compaction does to tree roots. Point out to them what proper pruning is (and what it’s not). Cite the corresponding ANSI Standards, OSHA requirements or ISA guidelines.

His advice was this: You don’t necessarily need to point out the errors of others. That’s not a dodge. You’re acting as a professional.

Are there moments we should speak out about bad behavior? Absolutely. But we should do so with great caution. We rarely know the whole story nor do we fully know all the difficulties other professions face. By sticking to what we know, we stand on much firmer ground.

  • In the case of the gas explosion, I provided the attorney with the OSHA guidelines for maintaining safe working conditions. Whether or not the estimator was negligent is for a judge to decide.
  • For the insurance agent, I provided her the regional university guidelines for when to prune oak trees.
  • For the business owner, I provided my appraisal of the neighbor’s trees.

I’ve found that it’s best to stick with what I know.

What I know is trees.

Thankfully, the question of impropriety is almost always for others to determine — whether that be the property owner, an insurance adjuster or a judge’s verdict. To venture into judging the work of others or to point fingers is risky at best.

Leave the moral judgments to those who need to make that call.