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What is a Nuisance?

Updated on February 6, 2010

A nuisance, in law, is a catchall term denoting various kinds of wrongful behavior, rather than describing a single type of culpable act. The term refers to both a violation of the criminal law and to a particular kind of tortious conduct.

The right of a landowner to the use and enjoyment of his property free from unreasonable interference is regulated by the civil law of nuisance. The law does not protect a man's castle from every act which he considers personally objectionable. The act complained of must be unreasonable and must cause substantial injury to the rights of the landowner before he can find redress in the courts.

In determining what constitutes a nuisance, several factors are considered. The extent of the harm caused is usually balanced against two other considerations: the value to society of the challenged activity; and the availability of an alternative method, which would be lawful, to produce the same result. The nature of the neighborhood is examined by the court to determine what activities a landowner should expect to find there. Often the court will consider who was there first, and if the challenged activity was going on when the plaintiff acquired his rights in the land, the plaintiff will not be permitted to object to it. Not only the legal titleholder but tenants, mortgagors, or the holder of any possessory interest in the allegedly invaded real estate may bring suit.

However, the court will not consider the idiosyncrasies of the plaintiff. The test applied requires a determination of whether a person with average sensibilities would find his use and enjoyment substantially diminished. Thus a funeral parlor or a warehouse full of dynamite in a residential neighborhood has been held to be a nuisance. Conversely, a church bell which sounded on the hour, twenty-four times a day, was not found to be a nuisance even though it severely disturbed the landowner who lived across the street from the church. He was a nervous, physically incapacitated individual, but the court ruled that the average person would not be disturbed by the noise.

Nuisance also refers to violations of certain minor criminal statutes, such as antigambling laws and regulations pertaining to the freedom of the public road. Violation of such laws usually is considered to be the commission of a "public nuisance," punishable in a criminal action by the state. However, where an individual citizen suffers some damage which is different from that suffered by the community at large, he may bring a civil action to be compensated for his injury. The citizen who is forced to make a detour because of an unlawful roadblock cannot bring a civil suit, if this is his only injury, since this is the injury common to the general public. However, if his place of business has been blocked by the same roadblock, he may recover his losses in a tort action.

If the civil suit is based on a public nuisance, the injury claimed need not be one to land, as is the case in a suit based on noncriminal activity. Personal injuries sustained on account of a public nuisance may be the basis for a civil suit.

The damages available to the plaintiff in a civil suit in nuisance are the same as those in any other tort action. The remedy of injunction is frequently granted, since, historically, the court considers money damages inadequate to remedy an injury to real estate. Pecuniary damages, both compensatory and punitive, are also available when they can be calculated without undue speculation.

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