This article has been written by Mudit Gupta, who is currently pursuing BBA.LL.B (Hons.) from the University of Mumbai Law Academy. This article discusses all the necessary details about the law of torts for nuisance in the United States of America.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
Enjoyment of one’s own rights and property is one of the basic and fundamental rights which is guaranteed to every citizen by his/her country. Same rights are given to the United States’ citizens. If someone interferes with the enjoyment of one’s own property, then he is said to commit the offense of nuisance.
Tort of nuisance: A brief overview
Although, there is not a clear definition of nuisance in the jurisdiction of the United States, the tort of nuisance is interpreted as the legal wrong that takes place when a person is deprived of the enjoyment of his/her property due to a significant and unreasonable interference caused. The word nuisance has been derived from the French word ‘nuire’ which means to hurt or to annoy. The law of nuisance in the United States provides a way for property owners to seek relief for any unreasonable and significant interference causing interference in the enjoyment of the property. Nuisance can take place in many forms, including noise pollution, pollution of the air or water, blocking of light or access to land among many others. Anything substantial, causing interference in the rightful enjoyment of one’s property is considered a nuisance. In this article, we will explore the legal principles of torts of nuisance in the United States, the different types of nuisance, and the remedies that may be available to those affected by nuisance.
Tort of nuisance can be divided into two main categories. One is known as private nuisance and the other is known as public nuisance. Private nuisance is said to have happened when the interference with the use and enjoyment of property is suffered by a specific individual. For instance if your neighbor plays extremely loud music making it uncomfortable for you to live peacefully in your own residence. On the other hand, public nuisance is said to have occurred when the interference affects the community at large. For instance if a factory secretes untreated waste into a river causing health and sanitary issues to a large number of people living in that area.
To establish a claim for nuisance in the United States, a person must show that the interference with the use and enjoyment of their property is significant and unreasonable. This involves a consideration of factors such as the nature of the interference, the severity of the interference, and the duration of the interference. The court will also consider whether the defendant had a reasonable alternative course of action, and whether the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property is particularly sensitive.
Remedies for nuisance in the US can include an injunction to prevent the continuation of the nuisance, damages to compensate the plaintiff for any harm suffered, and abatement of the nuisance. An injunction is a court order that prohibits the continuation of the nuisance and is often the most effective remedy. Damages may be awarded for any harm suffered as a result of the nuisance, such as loss of property value or medical expenses. Abatement may be ordered by the court when the nuisance can be removed, such as when a factory is polluting a river.
What is nuisance as per the law of Torts
The first basic question which comes to mind while discussing Nuisance is what does the term Nuisance mean?
The statute does not give a clear definition of the term nuisance so let’s understand a few definitions given by some eminent jurists. A very famous American Scholar, William Prosser, once said that “there is perhaps no more impenetrable jungle in the entire law than that which surrounds the word ‘nuisance.” But in simple words, Nuisance is to be considered as a civil wrong which deprives a citizen or a group of citizens from their rightful enjoyment of either their personal property or public property.
Another very eminent jurist of law is Salmond. According to him, nuisance consists in causing or allowing to cause without lawful justification, the escape of any deleterious thing from one’s land or from anywhere into land in possession of the plaintiff, such as water, smoke, gas, heat, electricity, etc. For nuisance to take place, such an escape should cause disturbance in rightful enjoyment of the property to the person having the possession of the property.
From reading all these definitions given by the eminent jurists, we can say that nuisance refers to an activity which is intentional and creates unreasonable interference into the peaceful use and enjoyment of property of the plaintiff causing interference to him/her in the rightful enjoyment of the property and is also non-trespassory in nature.
Essential Elements of Nuisance
As per the law of torts, for the tort of nuisance to take place, there are a few essential elements which are necessary for determining whether a tort of nuisance has occurred or not. These are:
Interference with property
For enforcing a suit of nuisance against a party, the first and foremost requirement is that the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s actions have interfered with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of his/her property. This is the basis for any suit of nuisance as the remedies are granted on the basis and extent of the damage. If there is no interference regarding the enjoyment of the property then in that case, a suit of nuisance cannot be enforced.
The interference must be substantial, unreasonable and of continuing nature, meaning that it materially affects the plaintiff’s quality of enjoyment of the property.Continuance does not only mean a habitual act. It also includes an activity having its results, time and again in near future also. The court of law take into account a significant act causing damage to the enjoyment of property to the plaintiff. If the court of law considers some activity to be reasonable and non-substantial in nature, then in that case no remedy is provided to the plaintiff as it is considered that the particular activity will not cause any annoyance to a reasonable person.
The intention of the defendant also plays a critical role in giving a decision in a case of nuisance. If the activity done by the defendant was intentional and caused damage to the plaintiff then in that case the decision would be given against the defendant otherwise it will be given against the plaintiff. In most cases, the defendant’s conduct must be intentional or unreasonable, although some acts of nuisance may be considered as an exception to this such as cases of strict liability where the intention of the defendant does not matter.
What are the different types of nuisance
Now let’s understand about the types of Nuisance in the United States.
In the States, the concept of nuisance is further categorized into two parts. These two parts are separated depending upon the number of people aggravated by a particular activity and regarding the kind of property of which the enjoyment is deprived off. The first of two is Private Nuisance and the second one is Public Nuisance.
The first one is a private nuisance. It is a type of nuisance where the defendant infringes the right in personam of the plaintiff. The plaintiff is aggrieved by the defendant because of the interference caused by the defendant on the personal rights of the plaintiff which are not common to a large group of people as well as is related to a personal property of the plaintiff.
Elements of private nuisance
There are 3 main elements to prove a private nuisance to have occurred. These 3 elements are:
- Plaintiff has the possession of the property on which the nuisance is said to have occur
- Disturbance or annoyance caused by defendant’s act hinders the enjoyment of property to the plaintiff
- The Act should be substantial and uncooperative in nature for a reasonable man.
These 3 elements are the key points which need to be proved before the court of law to get the relief for the nuisance suffered on a personal property. These concepts were discussed by the court in the case of Lillien v. Hancock, where the court said that, for determining whether an act is unreasonable or not, the court must use a balancing test and consider all the other factors involving the nature of the interference, and the use and enjoyment of the plaintiff which is interfered with, along with all other surrounding circumstances.
In the case of Pestey v. Cushman, the court said that although most of the times unreasonable interference with the enjoyment of the plaintiff and unreasonable use by the defendant co-exist, both of these concepts are different from each other. It is possible that the defendant’s use of his property, although reasonable, constitutes a common-law private nuisance as it unreasonably interferes with the use of property of the plaintiff.
The second kind of nuisance is public nuisance. It is a type of nuisance that basically affects the right in rem which means that in this type of nuisance only an individual’s rights are not infringed, the rights infringed are of a group of people. All the people are equally entitled for the damages from the side of the defendant because all of them are equally disturbed by the act of the defendant. Such an act of nuisance usually occurs on a property which is available to a large number of people such as community parks. It was explained in the case of Keeney v. Town of Old Saybrook.
Essentials of public nuisance
To prove the happening of a public nuisance, there are 3 key essential points which are considered. They are:
- A person must have done an act or an illegal omission. Omission in this case only applies to people who have the responsibility for the same.
- Such an act or omission must cause any common injury, danger or annoyance to the public or to the people in general. Such an act of nuisance usually occurs on a public property.
- Such an act or omission must be substantial and continuing in nature. Non-substantial acts or omissions are not taken into consideration.
Although, public nuisance is established when a right of people at large is infringed but, in case if some individual has sustained some personal damage due to an activity which is public nuisance, then that person can sue the defendant for the same. The only requirement is that the person has to prove that the act was a public nuisance. It was explained in the case of Higgins v. Connecticut Light Power Co. and the court said that the public nuisance does not depend on the number of persons annoyed, but by the possibility of annoyance to the public by the invasion of its rights.
Who are the parties to the nuisance action
In a nuisance action as per the law of torts in the United States, the parties are typically the person or entity causing the nuisance commonly known as defendant in a suit of nuisance and the person or entity suffering from the nuisance is commonly known as the plaintiff. The plaintiff has the liability to demonstrate that the defendant’s unreasonable actions have caused a significant and unreasonable interference with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property.
In some cases, there can be multiple plaintiffs or multiple defendants, for eg. when a group of neighbors are affected by a single source of nuisance or when multiple sources of nuisance contribute to the interference with the plaintiff’s property. Also, in situations involving public nuisance, the government may be involved as a party, either as a plaintiff seeking relief or as a defendant responsible for abating the nuisance.
In a nuisance action, the plaintiff may seek various remedies, including an injunction to prevent the continuation of the nuisance, damages to compensate for any harm suffered, and abatement of the nuisance. The specific remedies available will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of the case, as well as the applicable laws and regulations.
Remedies for nuisance
If the legal rights of a person are infringed then the law also provides for some legal remedies. The remedies for tort of nuisance that are provided in the suits of nuisance by the courts in the jurisdiction of United States of America includes the following:
When a particular act annoys a person who has a right to enjoy the property then that act is said to cause nuisance to the person. The first and foremost requirement of the plaintiff in such cases is to stop that activity. This can be done by the way of an injunction. An injunction is an order of the court which prohibits the continuation of the nuisance. This is often the most effective remedy and is typically sought when the nuisance can be easily prevented or stopped. Usually as a remedy, permanent injunction is enforced after the completion of the proceedings but interim injunctions are enforced during the trial of a particular case in order to stop the ongoing annoyance to the plaintiff and then decide upon the dispute further.
When a person aggrieved by the nuisance approaches the court, then he/she seeks two remedies. First is stopping the activity which is causing nuisance and second is getting the damages for the harm he/she has suffered. First remedy is granted in the form of injunction which is discussed above and the second one is granted by way of damages. Damages are awarded to compensate the plaintiff for any harm suffered as a result of the nuisance, such as loss of property value or medical expenses.
Measurement of damages
In most of the cases courts restrict the liability regarding the damages in cases of nuisance only for the amount of the injury sustained like, the value of the property. But, in some cases where the nuisance caused other sorts of injury also, like the loss of business revenue, then in those cases orders for special damages are also given by the courts.
Another type of remedy which can be granted by the court of law is abatement. Abatement may be ordered by the court when the nuisance can be removed and such removal is the best way possible to grant relief in that particular situation. For example, when a factory is polluting a river the court may order for the removal of that factory from that particular place as it will be harmful for a large group of people residing in that vicinity. In some cases, the court may appoint a receiver to take control of the property and remove the nuisance.
Sometimes the problem arises when the parties are not certain of their rights provided to them by the law of the country. In that case if they feel annoyed by some activity, they file a suit and the judge gives declaratory relief to the parties. A court may issue a declaratory judgment to clarify the rights and responsibilities of the parties with respect to the nuisance. Declaratory relief allows the parties who are not sure about their rights to prevent the accrual of damages that can be avoided and to obtain an adjudication before the parties bring a coercive lawsuit demanding injunction and damages.
The remedies which are given to the people aggrieved, depend on the particular facts and circumstances of the case, as well as the applicable laws and regulations. In some cases, judges may also order the defendant to pay the attorney’s fees and costs which were incurred by the plaintiff in pursuing the legal action.
The end goal of the remedies granted in a nuisance claim is to provide relief to the plaintiff and to hold the defendant responsible for their actions causing any harm to the plaintiffs.
Defenses for nuisance claims
Not all claims for nuisance are maintainable in the Court of Law. The legislation has provided for some exceptions where the defendants are not liable for the tort of nuisance. These cases are:
Suppose, you are living in a particular area near an under-construction government building. The noise and dust has made it very difficult for you to live peacefully. In this case, you are suffering from nuisance but is there any remedy available at your disposal? The answer is no because the act of this construction is protected by the defense of statutory authority. This defense gives the defendant’s conduct an authorization by way of a statute or ordinance and hence, it may not be considered an act of nuisance.
Coming to the nuisance
Another case in which the plaintiff cannot claim any remedy is when he is aware that the activity which is causing nuisance to him/her was already happening. Suppose there is a gym near a particular house where zumba sessions are taken 3 times a day and the plaintiff having knowing this fact purchases that house then in that case the plaintiff cannot claim any remedy as the plaintiff moved into an area where the defendant’s conduct was already occurring and hence, they may not be able to recover for nuisance.
As per the doctrine of laches, if the plaintiff unreasonably delayed in bringing their complaint, they may be barred from recovery for nuisance. The plaintiff is expected to approach the court within a reasonable period of time. If he/she approaches the court beyond the reasonable time and also without having a valid reason for the same, then in that case the defendant can use this point as a defense. Suppose the act of nuisance has been committed over a long period of time such as loud music, then in that case if the plaintiff approaches the court for remedy within a reasonable period of time then the remedies will be given otherwise it would be considered that the act was not causing any harm to the plaintiff and hence, no remedy will be granted.
Public nuisance at workplace due to COVID-19
In the previous 2-3 years, COVID-19 has given birth to many lawsuits. One type of such suits are relating to public nuisance suits filed by the employees. There is a clear spike in the number of lawsuits by the employees suing their employers for the point that workplaces are not complying with COVID-19 health guidelines and are liable for public nuisances requiring abatement.
Courts have varied views on whether non-compliant workplaces warrant a public nuisance. Implementing and enforcing workplace policies and practices that meet evolving federal, state, and local health guidelines can help avoid public nuisance claims. Employers facing public nuisance claims may have various defenses available including the primary-jurisdiction doctrine and compliance with federal, state, and local laws, regulations, orders, and public health guidelines concerning COVID-19. To help reduce the risk of public nuisance litigation, businesses can try to stay informed of evolving federal, state, and local laws, regulations, orders, and administrative agency guidelines related to COVID-19, and modify their workplace policies and practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. This will help both the employees as well as the employer.
Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon (1922)
In this case, surface rights to a particular land were granted to Mahon by way of a deed and mining rights were reserved by the Pennsylvania Coal company which was used to mine the coal under the surface to Pennsylvania Coal Company and that Mahon was taking this property subject to all the risks associated with mining. The Kohler Act, when enacted, prohibited mining which could affect the integrity of the land. Mahon sued Pennsylvania Coal Co., arguing they could not mine for coal under his property as it would affect the integrity of the land. The trial court agreed that the mining would cause damage but did not issue an injunction, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional. The PA Supreme Court argued that this statute was a valid exercise of police power and the case was sent to the Supreme Court.
This case established the principle of regulatory taking which states that government regulations can constitute a taking of property if they go too far in limiting the use of private property. In this case, the Supreme Court held that a zoning ordinance that prohibited coal mining beneath homes was a taking of property without just compensation.
Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co. (1970)
In this case, A large plant was started by the Atlantic Cement Company. The neighbors residing in the vicinity filed a suit for injunctive relief and damages, alleging the acts of the company causing injury to their property from dirt, smoke, and vibrations that was generated from the plant of the company. The case was tried, and the court considered the act to be a nuisance and ordered for temporary reliefs. No injunctive relief was given to the plaintiffs. The cases were appealed by many parties and several of them were settled. There remained three cases which were retried, and two of those three landowners settled after retrial, leaving just one who had not settled.
This case established a rule which stated that punitive damages will not be awarded where the wrong regarding which the complaint has been filed is morally culpable or was done with evil motive.
Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Association (2006)
In this case, a suit was brought by the Borough of Point Pleasant against the Borough of Bay Head and the Bay Head Improvement Association, generally asserting that the defendants prevented Point Pleasant inhabitants from gaining access to the Atlantic Ocean and the beachfront in Bay Head. The proceeding was dismissed as to the Borough of Bay Head because it did not own or control the beach. Subsequently, Virginia Matthews, a resident of Point Pleasant who desired to swim and bathe at the Bay Head beach, joined as a party plaintiff, and Stanley Van Ness, as Public Advocate, joined as plaintiff-intervenor. When the Borough of Point Pleasant ceased pursuing the litigation, the Public Advocate became the primary moving party. The Public Advocate asserted that the defendants had denied the general public its right of access during the summer bathing season to public trust lands along the beaches in Bay Head and its right to use private property fronting on the ocean incidental to the public’s right under the public trust doctrine
This case established a rule which said that the public must be given both, access to as well as use of privately-owned dry sand areas as reasonably necessary. While the public’s rights in private beaches are not coextensive with the rights enjoyed in municipal beaches, private landowners may not in all instances prevent the public from exercising its rights under the public trust doctrine. The public must be afforded reasonable access to the foreshore as well as a suitable area for recreation on the dry sand.
In conclusion, the law of torts for nuisance in the USA provides a legal framework for individuals to seek compensation for harm caused by unreasonable and excessive interferences with their use and enjoyment of their property. Nuisance can take many forms, including noise, odor, and vibration, and it can affect both private and public property. The elements of a nuisance claim include substantial interference with property rights, unreasonableness of the defendant’s conduct, and causation. A person affected by nuisance can seek an injunction to halt the activity causing the harm or monetary damages to compensate for the harm suffered. Understanding the law of torts for nuisance is essential for individuals, property owners, and businesses operating in the USA.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the difference between nuisance and negligence?
These two terms are very different from one another. Nuisance is said to be done when the harm done is intentional whereas in case of Negligence annoyance is caused due to lack of proper care from the side of the defendant. Nuisance invites a stricter liability than that in case of negligence. In case of Negligence, there is fault based liability whereas in case of Nuisance, there is strict liability.
Can a nuisance claim be made against a government entity?
Yes, a nuisance claim can be made against a government entity in the United States of America. These claims are made under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 1946. The government, including its agencies and departments, is subject to the same laws as private individuals and corporations and can be held liable for creating a nuisance.
However, there are some special considerations and limitations when making a nuisance claim against a government entity such as sovereign immunity for some acts.
Can a nuisance claim be made by the government?
Yes, a nuisance claim can be made by the government. As a matter of fact, most of the public nuisance suits have the government as a plaintiff.
What is the difference between Nuisance and Trespass?
The key difference between Nuisance and trespass is that trespass is direct and requires physical invasion with the property of the person having its possession while nuisance can be created in an indirect manner. It was explained by the court in the case of Rickel v. Komaromi.
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