About 18,000 Floridians in Orange County lost their bright, leafy citrus trees between 2002 and 2006. The state destroyed the trees in an attempt to get rid of a contagious citrus disease. That left a sour taste in owners’ mouths. Many sued. Sixteen years later, Florida will pay $42 million dollars to homeowners in compensation for their trees.
More than 60,000 healthy, uninfected trees were destroyed in Orange County as part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ efforts to eradicate citrus canker. Now the homeowners will receive about $700 per healthy tree destroyed. The settlement is part of an order issued in state court in Orlando. In 2014, the value of each healthy tree was determined to be $344. But fees and interests over the years have doubled the per-tree restitution payment.
Citrus canker doesn’t harm humans. But it can cause leaves and fruit to drop from the tree early. The bacteria that causes the disease also creates unappealing lesions on the fruit. Buyers don’t want ugly oranges, grapefruit, or lemons. And the lesions leak bacterial cells that can spread to other trees via wind, rain, or contaminated equipment.
Healthy trees that were within 1900 feet of an infected one were cut down. If owners resisted, authorities squeezed them with threats of arrest. Or they obtained warrants to go onto private property and destroy trees.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had argued that the homeowners’ trees were a public nuisance. The agency said the trees didn’t have value worth compensating. But in the 2000s, the state did offer tree owners $100 Walmart gift cards for their first destroyed tree and $55 for each additional tree.
The Bible has a lot to say about compensation and restitution when one causes another’s. One example is in Exodus 21:33-34. If someone doesn’t cover a pit and an ox or donkey falls in, the pit digger must pay the animal’s owner for the loss. God takes loss of property seriously, even if it’s unintentional or not malicious. In the United States, the government can take property if it’s for “public use.” But it must pay the owners. (Read Eminent Domain: Progress or Abuse of Power?)
Tens of thousands of homeowners in Broward, Lee, and Palm Beach counties have sued too—and won. A case in Miami-Dade County is still awaiting a decision.
Why? Compensation and restitution are important concepts for the good of societies and economies. God goes even further in cases of intentional harm. Exodus 22:1 says, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”