Public Nuisance

Personal Injury Lawyer

Public nuisance is a tort that occurs when a person unreasonably interferes with a right that the general public shares. In other words, a person commits a public nuisance if they harm an entire neighborhood or society as a whole. Some examples of actions that constitute a public nuisance include water and air pollution, interference with the use of public spaces (such as a public park or the coastline), and creation of public health hazards (such as through dangerous drugs).

Public nuisance can be the result of either intentional or negligent conduct. In determining whether a public nuisance has occurred, a court will consider the type of neighborhood affected, the nature of the harmful conduct, and the proximity of the harmful conduct to those who were injured. 

Who Can Sue for Public Nuisance?

However, because a public nuisance will affect many members of a society, the law limits the class of people who have the right to sue a person who has created a public nuisance. If every individual in the affected community were permitted to sue, the number of potential lawsuits would be unjust, inefficient, and wasteful. 

Therefore, the law limits the right to sue for public nuisance to two groups of people. First, public authorities who are responsible for protecting the rights of the public, such as state and federal environmental protection agencies, may sue to prevent an ongoing public nuisance or to remedy a past public nuisance. Second, individuals within the affected community who have suffered a particularized harm as a result of the public nuisance can sue. A particularized harm is an individual harm that is different from the harm suffered by the public at large. 

Remedies for Public Nuisance Actions

Plaintiffs bringing a claim for public nuisance can sue for damages or an injunction to abate an ongoing nuisance. In some instances, public authorities can refer public nuisance cases to state prosecutors to take criminal action against those who created the nuisance. 

As explained by a highly regarded personal injury lawyer, the defendant in a public nuisance case will be liable to the plaintiff for compensatory damages for the harm they have suffered as a result of the nuisance, whether that be personal injury and lost wages or property damage.

Defenses to Public Nuisance Actions 

A defendant in a public nuisance action can raise several defenses, including assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, and “coming to the nuisance.” A defendant can claim assumption of the risk as a defense if the plaintiff knew about the nuisance and could have avoided it, but decided to live or work near the nuisance anyways. A defendant can claim contributory negligence as a defense if the plaintiff was negligent in causing, prolonging, or worsening their exposure to the public nuisance. 

The defense of “coming to the nuisance” applies when the plaintiff’s property was impacted by the nuisance, the nuisance was occurring before the plaintiff acquired the property, and the plaintiff knew about the nuisance at the time the plaintiff purchased the property. “Coming to the nuisance” was historically a complete bar to recovery, but is now one of many factors the court will consider in evaluating a public nuisance claim. 

Thanks to Eglet Adams for their insight on public nuisance lawsuits.