A public nuisance generally refers to any conduct that interferes with the rights of the public. The precise definition of public nuisance often varies by state and is embodied in civil and criminal statutes. For example:
In California, “anything which is injurious to health, or is indecent, or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood, or by any considerable number of persons, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable lake, or river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street, or highway, is a public nuisance” according to Section 360 of the Penal Code.
Both the North Dakota Century Code and the California Civil Code define “public nuisance” as one which at the same time affects an entire community or neighborhood or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon the individuals may be unequal.
In Montana, public nuisance also refers to “any premises where persons gather for the purpose of engaging in unlawful conduct” in addition to conduct that endangers the safety or health, is offensive to the senses, or obstructs the free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.
In contrast, a private nuisance interferes with private rights. Often conduct may constitute both a private and public nuisance, for example, air and water pollution can affect both private and public rights. But if the pollution effects only one individual or a determinable number of people, rather than the general public, it is only a private nuisance.
[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]