The term nuisance lawsuit can refer to one of two types of lawsuits. The first is a tort lawsuit of the nuisance, which is a situation wherein the plaintiff claims that the defendant is causing a nuisance. The second is a frivolous lawsuit. A frivolous lawsuit involves a plaintiff bringing a lawsuit that serves as nothing more than a nuisance to the defendant. To explore this concept, consider the following nuisance lawsuit definition.
Definition of Nuisance Lawsuit
- A lawsuit over something annoying or offensive to the individual suing, or to the community
1375-1425 Late Middle English
What is a Nuisance Lawsuit
A nuisance lawsuit is so named because it is brought against a person who is believed to be a nuisance to the plaintiff. Similarly, a lawsuit itself may be deemed a “nuisance” if the person bringing the suit is doing nothing more than creating a nuisance for, or harassing, the defendant. There are two examples of nuisance lawsuits that can be addressed in a court of law: a private nuisance and a public nuisance.
There are also nuisances known as “attractive nuisances,” which are hazards that are likely to entice children onto a person’s property and potentially into danger, such as a swimming pool. For an attractive hazard, citizens are expected to take responsible precautions to prevent accidents from occurring.
A private nuisance occurs when a person disrupts or otherwise prevents another person from using and enjoying his own property. For example, a nuisance lawsuit may be brought against someone who lets his dog bark outside all night, preventing his neighbors from getting a full night’s sleep. This is a private nuisance. A nuisance lawsuit would then be entertained by the court if the plaintiff had asked the neighbor to keep his dog quiet, yet the neighbor refused to comply.
For a plaintiff to successfully sue a defendant for causing a private nuisance, the plaintiff must be able to prove several elements of his suit, including:
- The plaintiff (person filing the lawsuit) owns, rents, or leases his property.
- The defendant (person against whom the lawsuit is filed) created or maintained an environment that prevented the plaintiff from freely using and enjoying his property.
- The plaintiff did not consent to the defendant’s behavior.
- The defendant’s conduct would be considered annoying or upsetting to any reasonable person.
- The defendant’s conduct harmed the plaintiff (perhaps by preventing him from getting proper sleep).
Because a private nuisance is considered a civil matter, courts will weigh certain factors when determining a defendant’s accountability: the defendant’s fault in the matter, if any; whether the defendant has posed a substantial interference with the plaintiff’s quality of life; and the reasonableness of the defendant’s behavior.
To find fault, a court must decide whether a defendant intentionally, recklessly, or negligently restricted the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of his property. Else, fault can be found if the defendant continued behaving offensively even after learning that his conduct was harmful or posed a significant risk of harm to the plaintiff. An example of fault would be a defendant who continued to allow his dog to bark all night after the plaintiff went over and talked to him about it.
In an attempt to not waste the courts’ time, it must be shown that a defendant’s interference with a plaintiff’s enjoyment of his own property is a substantial interference, rather than a petty annoyance. It is easier to determine substantial interference when someone’s physical property is affected.
Much harder is proving substantial interference insofar as an annoyance or inconvenience. To determine substantial interference, courts will measure the level of annoyance with that of the normal sensitivity and temperament of a reasonable person. If the plaintiff is overly sensitive, his lawsuit may not survive.
If the court finds substantial interference has occurred, it must then determine whether it is reasonable for the plaintiff to bear the interference, or to bear it without compensation. In this case, courts will weigh the interests of both parties. The nature and gravity of the harm at issue is balanced against the burden the defendant bears in preventing the harm from occurring in the future. Factors to be considered here include:
- Nature of the harm caused
- Extent and duration of the disturbance
- Motivation of the defendant
- Feasibility of the defendant mitigating or stopping the harm
Remedies for nuisance cases are typically monetary damages. An injunction may also be ordered, depending on the circumstances. In public nuisance cases, a fine or sentence may also be imposed in addition to an injunction.
A public nuisance means that someone is behaving in such a way as to cause a group of people to either suffer a health hazard or otherwise lose the free and peaceful enjoyment of their property. For example, a nuisance lawsuit can be brought for a public nuisance if a chemical plant begins dumping waste in the local water supply. Public nuisance suits tend to be class-action lawsuits, meaning that a large group of people file small claims suits at around the same time against the defendant for the same issue.
For a plaintiff to successfully sue someone for creating a public nuisance, he must be able to prove all of the same facts that pertain to a private nuisance lawsuit, as well as the following:
- That the condition affected a large number of people simultaneously.
- That any potential usefulness the defendant’s behavior may have provided is outweighed by the severity of the harm he has caused.
- That the harm that was suffered individually was different from the harm that the general public suffered in general (for instance, if the local chemical plant’s dumping of toxins is visible from the nearby highway, but the contaminated water that resulted from the dumping actually entered the plaintiff’s home).
One of the most commonly seen types of public nuisance case is the filing of multiple small claims lawsuits against a neighbor who sells drugs, or against the landlord who is renting out space to the drug-selling neighbor, in an attempt to get the neighbor kicked out.
A defendant who is found guilty in a public nuisance lawsuit can be punished by a fine, a criminal sentence, or both. He may also be ordered to remove the nuisance, or to pay the costs involved with removing it. For instance, the chemical plant may be fined for polluting the local water supply and may also be ordered to pay for the costs associated with the clean-up.
Public nuisances are larger scale nuisances, in that they interfere with the public’s quality of living as a class, rather than with an individual or group of citizens’ quality of living. There are no civil remedies available for a private citizen who suffers the same harm from a public nuisance as his fellow citizens, even if he felt substantially greater effects than the others. In this case, the only remedy available is criminal prosecution.
If, however, the individual suffers harm that is different from that which was suffered by the general public, then he can file a tort lawsuit for damages. For instance, if the individual drank the contaminated water that was supplied to his house after the chemical plant dumped its toxins into the water, and if he suffered health problems as a result, then he is entitled to sue for damages related to personal injuries.
In the case of the chemical plant, this lawsuit can actually be considered both private and public insofar as a nuisance lawsuit. In this case, the nuisance would be considered a “mixed” nuisance because the defendant’s conduct was not only threatening the public at large, but it also had significant effects on local citizens at the individual level.
There are also public safety nuisances, which are nuisances that endanger citizens in the local area. Public safety nuisances include such acts as shooting off of fireworks, the storing of explosives, and practicing medicine without a license. Nuisances that threaten the public convenience include obstructing a roadway, or creating a condition that makes travel in the area either unsafe or incredibly problematic.
Nuisance Lawsuit Example Involving Global Warming
In July of 2004, two sets of plaintiffs filed public nuisance lawsuits in the Southern District of New York against the same five defendants. The first set of plaintiffs was comprised of eight states and New York City, the second was made up of three nonprofit land trusts. Each of the defendants was a major electrical power generating company dealing in fossil fuels, as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was a federally owned corporation that operated power plants in several states that ran on fossil fuels.
Plaintiffs complained that the defendants were “the five largest emitters of carbon dioxide” in the country. The plaintiffs stated that, by adding to the global warming problem, the carbon dioxide emissions that were being generated by these companies created a “substantial and unreasonable interference with public rights” that violated the federal law of interstate nuisance.
Plaintiffs sought an injunction requiring that each defendant restrict its carbon dioxide emissions, and take measures to reduce their emissions by a specific percent each year for at least 10 years. The District Court dismissed both lawsuits, but the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision.
When the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the Second Circuit’s decision with a unanimous (8-0) decision, and the case was remanded back to the lower court. The Supreme Court held that the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) displace federal public nuisance claims against fossil fuel-generated power plants.
Specifically, the Court stated:
“The Second Circuit erred, we hold, in ruling that federal judges may set limits on greenhouse gas emissions in face of a law empowering EPA to set the same limits, subject to judicial review only to ensure against action ‘arbitrary, capricious, … or otherwise not in accordance with law.’ ”
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Tort – An intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another.