Nuisance (from archaic nocence, through Fr. noisance, nuisance, from Lat. nocere, “to hurt”) is a common law tort. It means that which causes offence, annoyance, trouble or injury. A nuisance can be either public (also “common”) or private. A public nuisance was defined by English scholar Sir J. F. Stephen as,
“an act not warranted by law, or an omission to discharge a legal duty, which act or omission obstructs or causes inconvenience or damage to the public in the exercise of rights common to all Her Majesty’s subjects”.
Private nuisance is the interference with the right of specific people. Nuisance is one of the oldest causes of action known to the common law, with cases framed in nuisance going back almost to the beginning of recorded case law. Nuisance signifies that the “right of quiet enjoyment” is being disrupted to such a degree that a tort is being committed.
Under the common law, persons in possession of real property (land owners, lease holders etc.) are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their lands. However this doesn’t include visitors or those who aren’t considered to have an interest in the land. If a neighbour interferes with that quiet enjoyment, either by creating smells, sounds, pollution or any other hazard that extends past the boundaries of the property, the affected party may make a claim in nuisance.
Legally, the term nuisance is traditionally used in three ways:
- to describe an activity or condition that is harmful or annoying to others (e.g., indecent conduct, a rubbish heap or a smoking chimney)
- to describe the harm caused by the before-mentioned activity or condition (e.g., loud noises or objectionable odors)
- to describe a legal liability that arises from the combination of the two. However, the “interference” was not the result of a neighbor stealing land or trespassing on the land. Instead, it arose from activities taking place on another person’s land that affected the enjoyment of that land.
The law of nuisance was created to stop such bothersome activities or conduct when they unreasonably interfered either with the rights of other private landowners (i.e., private nuisance) or with the rights of the general public (i.e., public nuisance)
A public nuisance is an unreasonable interference with the public’s right to property. It includes conduct that interferes with public health, safety, peace or convenience. The unreasonableness may be evidenced by statute, or by the nature of the act, including how long, and how bad, the effects of the activity may be.
A private nuisance is simply a violation of one’s use of quiet enjoyment of land. It doesn’t include trespass.
To be a nuisance, the level of interference must rise above the merely aesthetic. For example: if your neighbour paints their house purple, it may offend you; however, it doesn’t rise to the level of nuisance. In most cases, normal uses of a property that can constitute quiet enjoyment cannot be restrained in nuisance either. For example, the sound of a crying baby may be annoying, but it is an expected part of quiet enjoyment of property and does not constitute a nuisance.
Any affected property owner has standing to sue for a private nuisance. If a nuisance is widespread enough, but yet has a public purpose, it is often treated at law as a public nuisance. Owners of interests in real property (whether owners, lessors, or holders of an easement or other interest) have standing only to bring private nuisance suits.
History and legal development of nuisance
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the law of nuisance became difficult to administer, as competing property uses often posed a nuisance to each other, and the cost of litigation to settle the issue grew prohibitive. As such, most jurisdictions now have a system of land use planning (e.g. zoning) that describes what activities are acceptable in a given location. Zoning generally overrules nuisance. For example: if a factory is operating in an industrial zone, neighbours in the neighbouring residential zone can’t make a claim in nuisance. Jurisdictions without zoning laws essentially leave land use to be determined by the laws concerning nuisance.
Similarly, modern environmental laws are an adaptation of the doctrine of nuisance to modern complex societies, in that a person’s use of his property may harmfully affect another’s property, or person, far from the nuisance activity, and from causes not easily integrated into historic understandings of nuisance law.
Under the common law, the only remedy for a nuisance was the payment of damages. However, with the development of the courts of equity, the remedy of an injunction became available to prevent a defendant from repeating the activity that caused the nuisance, and specifying punishment for contempt if the defendant is in breach of such an injunction.
The law and economics movement has been involved in analyzing the most efficient choice of remedies given the circumstances of the nuisance. In Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co. a cement plant interfered with a number of neighbors, yet the cost of complying with a full injunction would have been far more than a fair value of the cost to the plaintiffs of continuation. The New York court allowed the cement plant owner to ‘purchase’ the injunction for a specified amount—the permanent damages. In theory, the permanent damage amount should be the net present value of all future damages suffered by the plaintiff.
Inspector of Nuisances
An Inspector of Nuisances was the title of an office in several English-speaking jurisdictions. In many jurisdictions this term is now archaic, the position and/or term having been replaced by others. In the United Kingdom from the mid 19th century this office was generally associated with public health and sanitation.
The first Inspector of Nuisances appointed by a UK local authority Health Committee was Thomas
Fresh in Liverpool in 1844. Both the 1855 Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act and the Metropolis Management Act 1855 defined such an office but with the title of ‘Sanitary Inspector’. In local authorities that had established a Board of Health, the title was ‘Inspector of Nuisances’. Eventually the title was standardized across all UK local authorities as ‘Sanitary Inspector’. An Act of Parliament later changed the title to ‘Public Health Inspector’. Similar offices were established across the British Empire.
The nearest modern equivalent of this position in the UK is the Environmental Health Officer. This title being adopted by local authorities on the recommendation of Central Government after the Local Government Act 1972. Today, Registered UK Environmental Health Officers working in nonenforcement roles (eg in the private sector) may prefer to use the generic term ‘Environmental Health Practitioner’.
In the United States, a modern example of an officer with the title ‘Inspector of Nuisances’ but not the public health role is found in Section 3767 of the Ohio Revised Code which defines such a position to investigate nuisances, where this term broadly covers establishments in which lewdness and alcohol are found. Whereas in the United States the environmental health officer role is undertaken by local authority officers with the titles ‘Registered Environmental Health Specialist’ or ‘Registered Sanitarian’ depending on the jurisdiction.
Law related to nuisance, by country
The boundaries of the tort are potentially unclear, due to the public/private nuisance divide, and existence of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. Writers such as John Murphy of the University of Manchester have popularised the idea that Rylands forms a separate, though related, tort. This is still an issue for debate, and is rejected by others (the primary distinction in Rylands concerns ‘escapes onto land’, and so it may be argued that the only difference is the nature of the nuisance, not the nature of the civil wrong.)
Under English law, unlike US law, it is no defence that the claimant “came to the nuisance”: the 1879 case of Sturges v Bridgman is still good law, and a new owner can bring a claim in nuisance for the existing activities of a neighbour.
In the field of environmental science, there are a number of phenomena which are considered nuisances under the law, including most notably noise and light pollution. Moreover there are some issues that are not necessarily legal matters that are termed environmental nuisance; for example, an excess population of insects or other vectors may be termed a “nuisance population” in an ecological sense.
From Britannica 1911
A common nuisance is punishable as a misdemeanour at common law, where no special provision is made by statute. In modern times, many of the old common law nuisances have been the subject of legislation. It’s no defence for a master or employer that a nuisance is caused by the acts of his servants, if such acts are within the scope of their employment, even though such acts are done without his knowledge, and contrary to his orders. Nor is it a defence that the nuisance has been in existence for a great length of time, for no lapse of time will legitimate a public nuisance.
A private nuisance is an act, or omission, which causes inconvenience or damage to a private person, and is left to be redressed by action. There must be some sensible diminution of these rights affecting the value or convenience of the property. “The real question in all the cases is the question of fact, whether the annoyance is such as materially to interfere with the ordinary comfort of human existence” (Lord Romilly in Crump v. Lambert (1867) L.R. 3 Eq. 409). A private nuisance, differing in this respect from a public nuisance, may be legalized by uninterrupted use for twenty years. It used to be thought that, if a man knew there was a nuisance and went and lived near it, he couldn’t recover, because, it was said, it is he that goes to the nuisance, and not the nuisance to him. But this has long ceased to be law, as regards both the remedy by damages, and the remedy by injunction.
The remedy for a public nuisance is by information, indictment, summary procedure or abatement. An information lies in cases of great public importance, such as the obstruction of a navigable river by piers. In some matters, the law allows the party to take the remedy into his own hands, and to “abate” the nuisance. Thus; if a gate be placed across a highway, any person lawfully using the highway may remove the obstruction, provided that no breach of the peace is caused thereby. The remedy for a private nuisance is by injunction, action for damages or abatement. An action lies in every case for a private nuisance; it also lies where the nuisance is public, provided that the plaintiff can prove that he has sustained some special injury. In such a case, the civil is in addition to the criminal remedy. In abating a private nuisance, care must be taken not to do more damage than is necessary for the removal of the nuisance.
In Scotland, there’s no recognized distinction between public and private nuisances. The law as to what constitutes a nuisance is substantially the same as in England. A list of statutory nuisances will be found in the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1867, and amending acts. The remedy for nuisance is by interdict, or action
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