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Nuisance

Legal Responsibility

A private nuisance is a tort, that is, a civil wrong. To determine accountability for an alleged nuisance, a court will examine three factors: the defendant's fault, whether there has been a substantial interference with the plaintiff's interest, and the reasonableness of the defendant's conduct.

Fault Fault means that the defendant intentionally, negligently, or recklessly interfered with the plaintiff's use and enjoyment of the land or that the defendant continued her conduct after learning of actual harm or substantial risk of future harm to the plaintiff's interest. For example, a defendant who continues to spray chemicals into the air after learning that they are blowing onto the plaintiff's land is deemed to be intending that result. Where it is alleged that a defendant has violated a statute, proving the elements of the statute will establish fault.

Substantial Interference The law is not intended to remedy trifles or redress petty annoyances. To establish liability under a nuisance theory, interference with the plaintiff's interest must be substantial. Determining substantial interference in cases where the physical condition of the property is affected will often be fairly straightforward. More challenging are those cases predicated on personal inconvenience, discomfort, or annoyance. To determine whether an interference is substantial, courts apply the standard of an ordinary member of the community with normal sensitivity and temperament. A plaintiff cannot, by putting his or her land to an unusually sensitive use, make a nuisance out of the defendant's conduct that would otherwise be relatively harmless.

Reasonableness of Defendant's Conduct If the interference with the plaintiff's interest is substantial, a determination must then be made that it is unreasonable for the plaintiff to bear it or to bear it without compensation. This is a BALANCING process weighing the respective interests of both parties. The law recognizes that the activities of others must be accommodated to a certain extent, particularly in matters of industry, commerce, or trade. The nature and gravity of the harm is balanced against the burden of preventing the harm and the usefulness of the conduct.

The following are factors to be considered:

  • Extent and duration of the disturbance;
  • Nature of the harm;
  • Social value of the plaintiff's use of his or her property or other interest;
  • Burden to the plaintiff in preventing the harm;
  • Value of the defendant's conduct, in general and to the particular community;
  • Motivation of the defendant;
  • Feasibility of the defendant's mitigating or preventing the harm;
  • Locality and suitability of the uses of the land by both parties.

ZONING boards use these factors to enact restrictions of property uses in specific locations. In this way, zoning laws work to prohibit public nuisances and to maintain the quality of a neighborhood.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Notice of abandonment to Ordinary resolutionNuisance - Public Nuisance, Private Nuisance, Legal Responsibility, Defenses, Remedies, Further Readings