A nuisance refers to the non-physical interference with a property owner’s right to quiet enjoyment. Quiet enjoyment is a legal covenant that protects a property owner’s right to possess his or her property in peace, without interference or disturbance.
Nuisances can refer to smells, sounds, activities, or actions.
Under common law, a property owner’s possession of property does not entitle him or her to use the property in a manner that interferes with other neighbors and the public. Nuisance laws have been passed to deter property owners from engaging in actions and activities that interfere with the ability of neighbors and community members to quietly enjoy their own property.
There are public and private nuisance laws:
Private nuisance refers to an action that affects a single neighbor’s right to quiet enjoyment. This excludes trespassing, which is one party’s physical entry onto a property owner’s land without permission.
Public nuisance refers to an action that affects a considerable amount of people, an entire neighborhood, or a community.
When determining whether something is a nuisance or not, a court will consider the location of the property and the specific violation. It will also ask: “Was the action reasonable?”
For example, say a property owner is remodeling her house and causing loud construction noises throughout the day. Even though the noises are distracting, they are reasonable for the project at hand. Therefore, they cannot be considered a nuisance.
Say, however, that the neighbor chooses to do construction in the middle of the night. As most people normally sleep at night, the construction noises are now unreasonable and therefore, are considered a nuisance.
Legal damages for nuisance claims may be in the form of financial compensation, or a specific performance of ceasing the nuisance. Should a nuisance be able to cause harm or injury, it may be removed or destroyed immediately.
Case Law As It Relates to Nuisance
Case Review: Lew v. Superior Court (1993)
The case, Lew v. Superior Court (1993) 20 Cal.4th 866., involved a nuisance claim.
The owner of a large Section 8 housing complex (Lew) experienced significant drug trafficking problems. The property was overwhelmed with drug dealers, buyers, prostitutes, and other dangerous individuals.
In response, over 75 tenants filed a nuisance claim. They argued that Lew was aware of the rampant drug activity, but had done nothing to stop it. Many tenants stated that the illicit activities caused emotional and mental distress, loss of sleep, and fear for their safety.
The Superior Court concluded that Lew was aware of the problems on his property and that he should have remedied the situation. It sided with the tenants. Lew appealed. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling. Based on the theory of public and private nuisance, a drug house was a nuisance. Therefore, the court ordered Lew to compensate each of the neighboring tenants in the amount of $5,000. The total damages were $218,325.
Case Review: Wilson v. Handley (2002)
The case, Wilson v. Handley (2002) 97 Cal.App.3d 1301., involved a dispute over a spite fence.
A property owner (Wilson) shared a property border with a neighbor (Handley). Handley began growing large hybrid trees near the boundary line. These trees threatened to block out Wilson’s mountain view. Wilson sued Handley, claiming that the trees acted as a spite fence.
The Superior Court ruled in favor of Handley. It cited Civil Code 841, which defines a private nuisance as any fence, or other structure used as a fence, that is unnecessary in height and/or maliciously erected. The court argued that naturally growing trees do not apply under the nuisance law. Wilson appealed. He argued that the lower court’s interpretation of Civil Code 841 had been incorrect and therefore, the case had been improperly tried. The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the lower court’s ruling.