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Nuisance refers to actions by someone or something within their control that interfere with rights of either the public or private citizens outside of their property. This can be in many forms such as creating loud noises or letting water run onto another person’s property. Courts look broadly to evaluate whether an action by a party constitutes a nuisance, including whether the action unreasonably interferes with the health, safety, and comfort of the affected parties. The length of the nuisance, degree of unreasonableness, and whether there is a law or regulation prohibiting the act will be influential. Where there is a nuisance, parties typically receive damages unless the nuisance will continue or prove irreparable, in which case parties may seek equitable relief. The ability of a party to recover from a nuisance depends on whether the nuisance is public or private.

A public nuisance is when a person unreasonably interferes with a right that the general public shares in common. For example, a business that emits large amounts of foul smelling gas that spreads throughout the city would be creating a public nuisance. Most public nuisances must be brought by government officials on behalf of the public. Private citizens can bring a class action to enjoin the nuisance in some cases. For a private individual to bring an action on their own, they must have suffered a greater or different nuisance than the rest of the public. In the above example, if the gas intruded into houses beside the business, those homeowners might be able to bring private actions given the unique impact on their homes. 

A private nuisance is when the plaintiff's use and enjoyment of her land is interfered with substantially and unreasonably through the actions of another. Courts use several factors to determine reasonableness including whether the plaintiff had the property before the nuisance began, the level of harm versus the usefulness of the defendant’s activity, and whether the action would be annoying to the average person. For example, a person mowing their lawn once a week in a neighborhood, while loud, will likely not be a nuisance given the utility of keeping grass mowed and expectations of the average person. However, a person that has a loud generator outside running all day for over a week could very well be considered a nuisance to neighbors. A court will not find a private nuisance where the harm is caused by the unique attributes of the plaintiff rather than due to the actions of the defendant. For example, if a person has a unique sensitivity to noise, a neighbor will not be liable to the person for harm from using a lawn mower, even if it causes the person ear pain. 

There are several defenses to this tort including contributory negligence, assumption of risk, coming to the nuisance, or statutory compliance.

The typical remedy for nuisance (either public or private) is damages. Courts may grant injunctive relief if monetary damages will not adequately resolve the dispute. In some circumstances, an individual may go onto another’s property to stop a nuisance occurring, but they must be careful only to use reasonable actions to abate the nuisance. For example, if a neighbor left a water hose on that was washing away a person’s flowers, they likely could go onto the neighbor’s property and turn the water off. However, the person could not go onto the neighbors property and rip the faucet off the house. 

[Last updated in August of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]