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 What Is a Public Nuisance?

In a legal setting, the term nuisance is defined as the unreasonable or unlawful use of property in a manner that causes harm to others by preventing them from enjoying property. It is an action grounded in tort law and can involve conduct, such as loud noises, foul odors, dust, smoke, chemical fumes, excessive light, and so on. In some cases, it can also include criminal activity like prostitution or gambling.

There are two main categories of nuisance: public and private. A public nuisance is an act that unreasonably interferes with the health, safety, morals, and/or property rights of the general public. Some examples of public nuisance include:

  • An oil or chemical spill that affects the entire community;
  • A garbage dump whose smells infiltrate the whole town;
  • An instance of offensive vandalism (e.g., obscene graffiti art); and 
  • A motor vehicle accident in which vehicles are stranded for days and obstruct a main road.

In contrast, a private nuisance is a substantial and unreasonable interference with another individual’s use and/or enjoyment of their property by being annoying, irritative, or obstructive. A private nuisance only affects one person or a few individuals, as opposed to an entire community. For instance if a neighbor’s tree falls on your driveway and they refuse to move it, or if your neighbor allows their dog to bark all night on a regular basis.

What Are the Requirements to Bring an Action against a Public Nuisance?

Unlike a private nuisance, only two types of plaintiffs can bring an action against an act of public nuisance. In most cases, a public nuisance is typically filed by federal, state, and local authorities who have a duty to protect the rights of the general public, such as environmental protection agencies, state park departments, and municipal entities. 

The general public must reach out to the appropriate public officials and request that they take legal action on their behalf to stop the act of public nuisance from occurring. The public officials will then decide whether to file a lawsuit, and if so, will take over the case from that point forward. Depending on the facts of the case, the public officials may also file criminal charges against the individual or entity causing the public nuisance.

The second type of plaintiff who may sue include those individuals who suffer a particular harm that stems from the same public nuisance, but inflicts more or different damage to them than it does to other members of the general public who were affected. 

For example, town officials may bring a lawsuit against a chemical plant whose fumes are endangering the community. However, only the individuals that live near the plant can sue for the depreciating value of their homes.

In sum, only public officials and individuals who suffer a particular harm can bring an action against an act of public nuisance. Whether a certain activity that negatively impacts the general public will be considered a public nuisance or not will depend on the facts of the case and the laws of a specific jurisdiction. Thus, outcomes can vary widely for such cases. 

One final item of note is that a nuisance is considered a type of injury that can give rise to a cause of action, but it is not the cause of action itself. Therefore, while a nuisance can lead to a public nuisance lawsuit, it is not the legal basis that a public official or particular individual will sue on (e.g., setting off fireworks all night will create a public nuisance, but city officials may charge and attempt to convict a defendant for the criminal offense of “disturbing the peace.”

What Relief Is Available against a Public Nuisance?

There are a number of legal consequences that a person or entity may face under public nuisance law. The most common type of relief granted for an act of public nuisance is an injunction. An injunction is a court order that requires an offender to refrain from or to carry out a certain action. In a public nuisance lawsuit, an injunction is primarily used to stop the harmful activity from continuing. 

If the public nuisance lawsuit involves an activity that is necessary (such as the operation of a power plant), then the court may allow the nuisance to continue, but require the defendants to compensate the plaintiffs for the harm. This may be awarded in the form of ongoing monetary damages. Special monetary damages will also be awarded to individuals who experience a particularized harm that differs from those of the community and are plaintiffs to the lawsuit.

Some public nuisances will also give rise to criminal charges. If a city official charges a defendant with a crime, they can face criminal consequences for that particular crime as well. This includes having to pay hefty criminal fines, serving a prison sentence, and/or being put on probation.

Are There Any Defenses to Public Nuisance Claims?

There are several defenses that can be raised in a public nuisance lawsuit. Some of these defenses may include:

  • Assumption of risk;
  • Statutory compliance; 
  • Contributory negligence; and
  • “Coming to the nuisance”.

In addition, many courts will consider certain factors when evaluating whether the activity constituted a nuisance, such as:

  • The location where the nuisance occurred (e.g., was the area properly zoned for such activity?);
  • The degree of harm it caused;
  • How the property has been used in the past (e.g., was a chemical plant always there, or did it appear suddenly in a residential neighborhood?);
  • Whether the nuisance is something that happens occasionally or all the time; 
  • How many people are affected by an activity; and/or
  • Whether continuing the activity outweighs the harm done to the public.

Although the above list contains factors that a court considers and not actual legal defenses, the defendant can use them to support their arguments. For example, a defendant can try to persuade the court that they should not suffer legal consequences because their activity was conducted in the appropriate zone, did not affect the entire community, and that its benefits outweighed any harm done to the general public. 

What is the Statute of Limitations (SOL) for a Public Nuisance Claim?

Statutes of limitations for a public nuisance claim can vary widely from state to state. In general, however, a statute of limitations is typically set by whether a nuisance is considered a permanent or temporary activity. 

Most state statutes will provide a three-year statute of limitations for permanent nuisances. The time will begin to run after the permanent nuisance has occurred. Some states will also consider whether the nuisance is continuous or recurring. The statute of limitations to bring a lawsuit in those instances is usually within six years from the original act. 

As for the statute of limitations for temporary nuisances, many states provide a two-year time limit. Check the laws of the jurisdiction in which the nuisance occurred, or consult a local attorney for more information about the statute of limitations for a public nuisance lawsuit. 

Should I Contact an Attorney for Help with Public Nuisance Issues?

As discussed above, public nuisance lawsuits can generally only be filed by public authorities. However, if you believe that a public nuisance has affected you personally, then you should contact a local personal injury attorney for further legal guidance. 

An experienced personal injury attorney can assess the facts of your case and determine whether your injury qualifies as the type of harm necessary to recover for a public nuisance. If your claim is viable, your attorney can help you prepare and file a case, discuss your potential remedies, and can represent you on the matter in court.

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