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Tort - Public Nuisance

Updated on July 28, 2017

Public nuisance is the act of tampering with the right of the public to enjoy wholly or in part the rights over their respective property or land. Like private nuisance it can be committed by either doing an act which a reasonable man would not do or failing to do something that a reasonable man, under the given circumstances, would do. While private nuisance deals with the rights of the individual to enjoy the benefits of his or her property, public nuisance deals with the right of the public to enjoy the rights or benefits of their property.

In Benjamin v Storr (1874) the defendant had horses and carriages stationed outside the plaintiff’s coffeehouse all day long and as a result slowed down the movement of traffic. He was guilty of obstructing a public highway and his actions were deemed to be a public nuisance.

In addition to that his horses and carriages blocked the lights to the plaintiff’s coffeehouse and the smell of the horses put a lot of his customers off. The plaintiff sued and the court held that the plaintiff was entitled to claim because he had suffered additional damage that others had not.

Therefore, with public nuisance, despite the defendant being found guilty of committing the offence, individuals that have suffered further damage or damage more than others are also entitled to claim.

In order to be successful in an action for public nuisance, the aggrieved parties must have a proprietary interest in the property as per Tate & Lyle v Greater London Council (1983) and Hunter v Canary Wharf (1998).

In Tate & Lyle v Greater London Council (1983) the plaintiffs were owners of a sugar factory located close to a jetty and used boats and barges to transport the sugar that they produced to larger ships. At the time, the defendants were dredging the water for the purposes of constructing a jetty that would allow larger boats to dock.

The dredging churned up the dirt and grime from the river bed and the water subsequently became too dirty for the plaintiffs to use, possibly because what was churned up from the waterbeds made it unsafe for small boats and barges. The plaintiffs sued.

The court held that in order to be successful in a nuisance claim the plaintiff must have some proprietary interest in the property and because the plaintiffs didn’t, their claim failed.

In Hunter v Canary Wharf (1998), there were a large number of claims made against the developers of Canary Wharf Towers by residents living in the Isle of Dogs and the claim was based on the fact that the erection of the towers interfered with the television reception of those who lived in the Isle of Dogs. Additional claims were also made against London Docklands Development Corporation for excessive dust and other pollutants that resulted from the erection of the towers. A large number of the claimants did not have any proprietary interest. It was held that in order to be successful the plaintiffs must have a proprietary interest in the property.

In Attorney-General v PYA Quarries Ltd. (1957) the defendants were quarry blasting and the resultant noise and dust particles that were released into the air were a source of discomfort to those who lived in the area or the neighborhood. In addition to that it also aggravated the risk of the plaintiffs falling victim to ailments associated to breathing polluted air like asthma.

The plaintiffs sought redress in court and the court held that the defendants’ actions were a public nuisance. Public nuisance was interpreted as an act which “materially affects the reasonable comfort and convenience of a class of her Majesty’s subjects.”

The act of nuisance must be an overt act and the act of sending letters, pamphlets and newsletters etc. will not be deemed or categorized as an act that constitutes public nuisance.

In R v Rimmington (2005), the facts were somewhat similar to Hussain v Lancaster City Council (1999), the defendant sent some 538 racially discriminatory letters to the residents of a neighborhood. The court in line with the decision in Hussain v Lancaster City Council (1999) decided that the act of sending the letters, despite the content, was not an act of public nuisance.

If the courts were to consider such an act i.e. the act of sending out numerous letters, as an act of nuisance, it could have an impact on marketing and promotional materials that companies normally send out including brochures and catalogues. While the content is dissimilar, the mode or method of reaching out to the public is the same.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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