BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Rare is the opportunity to glean two instructive cases from one malefacting (if that’s a word) defendant. However, such is our good fortune with Ohio developer Angel’s Path, LLC (and yes, the apostrophe suggests there was only one angel on the path). Yesterday, disgruntled Angel’s Path neighbor Clarence Peters narrowly escaped being thrown out of court because he defended against summary judgment on the cheap. Today, we find out how his neighbors, the Kramers, fared when they went after the same developer because their home was disrupted by noise, dirt and even light from the new home development.
The Kramers claimed the dust and dirt was a public nuisance, and that Angel’s Path was causing the light to trespass on their homestead. These were both creative arguments, but the Kramers were doing their best to find a legal theory that would address the injustice they were experiencing. The developer leveled its legal guns, taking a very legalistic approach: the nuisance couldn’t be a public nuisance, it said: a public nuisance has to be affecting the plaintiff differently from the general public, and the general public was eating Angel Path’s dust just as badly as were the Kramers. As for the annoying light, Angel’s Point contended, there just weren’t any cases that said light could be a trespasser.
Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously chided a lawyer arguing before him that “this is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.” Fortunately for the Kramers, the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals wasn’t having any of that. Often one can tell when a court is stretching to find some way to do justice. Clearly, the appellate judges were disenchanted with the developer, the lawyers for which were essentially telling them that while Angels’ Path had done everything the Kramers accused it of, there wasn’t anything the law could do about it. Nyah-nyah.
But it turned out that there was something the Court could do about it. It reinstated the suit, warning the Kramers that they might find it tough to win a trial, but the facts they had alleged suggested several theories they could pursue.
With the case once again headed for a jury of just plain folks who would be unimpressed with Angel Path’s legal hair-splitting and probably sympathetic to the sleep-deprived, dust-covered Kramers, one imagines that Angel’s Path very quickly recalled another pithy legal aphorism: “A bad settlement is better than a good lawsuit.”
Our takeaway from this case is that nuisance actions can be both flexible and powerful means of redressing neighbors’ activities that interfere with the legitimate enjoyment of home and hearth.
Kramer v. Angel’s Path, LLC, 174 Ohio App.3d 359, 882 N.E.2d 46 (Ohio App. 6 Dist. 2007). William and Patricia Kramer, sued Angel’s Path, L.L.C., , alleging that construction in a housing development resulted in blowing dust and dirt tracked onto their street and trespass from a lighted “promotional” sign that lighted the front of the Kramers’ residence 24 hours a day. They alleged that Angel’s Path’s development was a public nuisance because of the dirt and Angel’s Path was actually trespassing on their land with the 24-hour lighted sign.
The trial court threw the suit out altogether. The Kramers appealed.
Held: The Kramers could proceed to trial against Angel’s Path.
The Court of Appeals held that the Kramers were clearly wrong that the development was a public nuisance, but the facts they had alleged in their complaint, if true, did make out a claim for a private nuisance. The rule is that courts should interpret complaints to do “substantial justice,” and it would be unfair to make hyper-technical demands for precision in complaints. The rules only require that a complaint “contain a short and plain statement of the circumstances entitling the party to relief and the relief sought.” The factual allegations in the complaint should control whether some legal cause of action has been properly pleaded and supported on summary judgment.
The opinion contains a welcome primer on nuisance law. The Court noted that the law of nuisance “has been described as the most ‘impenetrable jungle in the entire law’.” Generally, though, nuisance” is defined as “the wrongful invasion of a legal right or interest.” It may be designated as “public” or “private.” A public nuisance is “an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public,” and arises only where a public right has been affected. To recover damages under a claim of public nuisance, the plaintiff must establish (1) an interference with a public right and (2) that the plaintiff has suffered an injury distinct from that suffered by the public at large.
By contrast, a “private nuisance” is a non-trespass “invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land.” Unlike a public nuisance, a private nuisance threatens only one or few persons. In order for someone to be entitled to damages for a private nuisance, invasion has to be either (a) intentional and unreasonable or (b) unintentional but caused by negligent, reckless, or abnormally dangerous conduct.
A nuisance may be “continuing or permanent.” A continuing nuisance arises when the wrongdoer’s tortious conduct is ongoing, perpetually generating new violations. A permanent nuisance, on the other hand, occurs when the wrongdoer’s tortious act has been completed, but the plaintiff continues to experience injury in the absence of any further activity by the defendant.
For a nuisance to be an absolute nuisance, it must be based on intentional conduct or an abnormally dangerous condition that cannot be maintained without injury to property, no matter what precautions are taken. Strict liability is imposed upon an absolute-nuisance finding. When a defendant commits an unlawful act deemed to be an absolute nuisance, he or she becomes an insurer, and will be liable for “loss resulting from harm which may happen in consequence of it to persons exercising ordinary care, irrespective of the degree of skill and diligence exercised by himself * * * to prevent such injury.”
On the other hand, if the conduct is a “qualified” nuisance, it is premised upon negligence. A qualified nuisance is defined as essentially a lawful act “so negligently or carelessly done as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm, which in due course results in injury to another.” Under such circumstances, the nuisance arises from a failure to exercise due care. To recover damages for a qualified nuisance, negligence must be alleged and proven. Whether a party’s actions were reasonable is generally a matter for the trier of fact.
Trespass on real property occurs when a person, without authority or privilege, physically invades or unlawfully enters the private premises of another. The elements of a trespass claim are “(1) an unauthorized intentional act and (2) entry upon land in the possession of another.” A trespass claim exists even though damages may be insignificant. A person can be a trespasser without actually stepping onto another’s property. A trespass may be committed by invading the airspace of the property. This principle is based upon the concept that an owner of land owns as much of the space above the ground as he or she can use.
Here, Angel’s Path argued that the Kramer’s “public nuisance” was undercut by their admission that several neighbors suffered from the same excessive dirt and dust that bothered the Kramers. Therefore, it claimed, the Kramers failed to establish a claim for nuisance, because their injuries were no different that those suffered by the public in general. Angel’s Path also argued that the light shining into the Kramer home was not a trespass.
The Kramers countered with an affidavit and photos of the property across from their home and of their home, showing that the dirt and dust blew straight from the Angel’s Path property across their land. They even produced Weather Service wind records supporting the claim. As for the light, they contended that the entrance-sign light – directly across from their house – continuously lit up their home “in an annoying and harassing manner,” including the three front bedrooms. They had asked Angel’s Path turn off the light, nothing changed until after they sued, and took the deposition of an Angel’s Path executive.
The Kramers showed proof of the dirt in their home, and documented the costs of cleaning it up. They also described the Angel’s Path sign – “like a headlight shining into [the] bedroom windows” – and the problems this caused.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with Angel’s Path that a claim for “public” nuisance could not be sustained, because too many people apparently suffered the same deprivations. Under this line of reasoning, the Court observed, a person creating a public nuisance could escape liability simply by harming more than one party. Plus, the Court held, even if the Kramers had no public nuisance claim, they may still have a claim for private nuisance. Although Angel’s Path construction may be lawful, questions of fact remained as to whether the developer failed to exercise due care and was so negligent “as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm” resulting in the Kramers’ injuries. Thus, the Court wouldn’t through out the suit.
The Court was concerned that light invasion claim was “an unusual and perhaps creative application of trespass law.” The Court conceded that arguably, the Kramers could assert that the light physically invaded the airspace over their property. But even if this argument doesn’t carry the day, the Court said, genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether the lighted sign may be a public or private nuisance.