One of the many benefits of owning property is the right to reasonably use it as you please. However, this right is not unlimited: Nuisance laws aim to balance the rights of property ownership with the rights of adjoining neighbors and the community at large. Although nuisance laws vary, they all prohibit activity that unnecessarily damages or devalues the life or property of others. When property owners engage in or allow activities that create a nuisance on their property, they may be liable for any resultant damages.
The legal definition of a "nuisance" is an activity or condition (such as a loud noise or an offensive odor) that interferes with the use or enjoyment of property. Courts typically consider the following factors when deciding whether something is a nuisance:
The same activity can be a nuisance in one neighborhood and perfectly reasonable in another. For example, while a neighbor's loud, stinky chickens might be a nuisance in a suburban cul-de-sac, the same chickens located on a farm in a rural area almost certainly aren't.
A nuisance can either be private or public. A private nuisance is an activity or condition that affects an individual or a small group of people. A public nuisance is an activity or condition that affects an entire community or a large number of people. For example, if your neighbor's tree falls and blocks your driveway, you may have a private nuisance claim against your neighbor. If your neighbor's tree falls and blocks a public road, the local government will likely investigate and take legal action if necessary.
Property owners can be liable for both private and public nuisances that originate from their property—even if the nuisance is created by someone other than the owner, such as a tenant.
To determine if an activity or a condition is a private nuisance, courts typically weigh the social benefit of the activity or condition against the amount of harm it causes.
The harm caused must be significant and something that would affect an average person in the community. For example, an individual with an extremely sensitive sense of smell might not be successful in claiming a smell coming from a neighbor's house is a nuisance if no one else living nearby can smell it.
The activity must also have little to no social benefit. For example, the sound of music coming from the home studio of a professional pianist likely isn't a nuisance, while music played at all hours from a souped-up sound system in someone's garage more likely rises to the level of nuisance.
State and local laws define what constitutes a public nuisance in a community. To understand what counts as a public nuisance where you live, it's critical for you to study the nuisance laws in your state, county, and city.
In general, public nuisances are broken into three categories:
Individuals harmed by a private nuisance may sue the offending property owner for damages caused by the activity, such as medical bills, loss of property value, or the cost of repairs. They may also request the court to issue an injunction—an order telling the property owner to put an end to the nuisance.
Under most public nuisance laws, individuals can't seek to stop the activity, unless an exception under state or local law applies. (Often, though, public nuisance laws allow individuals who are harmed in a manner that is different from the harm suffered by the public at large to sue for damages.) Due to the nature of public nuisances, under most laws, only a public agency can sue to stop the activity. In some areas, certain public nuisances are classified as criminal offenses, meaning that a city attorney or other public official may press criminal charges and penalties.
You can typically pursue two types of relief in nuisance cases:
When confronted with a public or private nuisance, most people want the nuisance to end. Courts typically issue an injunction to abate (end) a nuisance, which is a court order that someone do something or stop doing something. Let's say you have a noisy neighbor, you might be able to get an injunction ordering your neighbors to stop playing loud music at midnight or to keep their dog inside after 10 p.m. You'll have to show that allowing the noise to continue will harm you more than stopping the noise will harm your neighbor.
Damages are compensation (money) for the losses and injuries caused by a nuisance, including:
In some extreme cases, a person filing a nuisance lawsuit (the "plaintiff") might also get punitive damages.
If you need assistance with a public or private nuisance claim, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can answer your questions and explain your legal options. Learn more about working with a lawyer. You can also connect with an attorney directly from this page for free.