Nuisance claims are a bit of a muddled area of Texas law. As Justice Boyd stated in the opinion: “This is a nuisance case, but that does not tell you much. As a legal concept, the word nuisance ‘has meant all things to all people.’ ” Because of the confusion, in a recent case the Texas Supreme Court articulated the standard for a landowner who wants to assert a noise-nuisance claim in Texas. The case is Crosstex North Texas Pipeline L.P. v. Andrew and Shannon Gardiner. In its opinion, the Texas Supreme Court noted that a nuisance is a particular legal injury that occurs where a landowner’s use or enjoyment of their land is interfered with by another party. The party could be a neighbor or an easement holder using the land. Nuisances often take the form of noise, vibrations, overpowering smells and other conditions that impede or inhibit a person from enjoying their property.
In this case, Crosstex North Texas Pipeline obtained an easement from the Gardiners and then built and operated a gas compressor station on the easement on a neighboring property. The compressor station included four diesel engines that were each “bigger than mobile homes.” Witnesses described the sound as similar to a jet engine. At least one of the engines runs continuously all day and night. Crosstex implemented a variety of other sound reduction and mitigation measures to stop the travel of sound, such as building walls around the compressor and planting vegetation around the compressor. However, the Gardiners claimed that the sound level was still unacceptable and that it interfered with the use and enjoyment of their property. The Gardiners sued on a noise nuisance claim. The jury awarded them $2,000,000 for dimunition in value of their ranch because of the compressor station.
The Court confirmed that Texas precedent characterizes a nuisance, not as an invasion of an interest but as a condition that substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of land by causing
unreasonable discomfort or annoyance to persons of ordinary sensibilities attempting to use and enjoy it. As the Supreme Court notes, there are three types of nuisance claims:
- Intentional nuisance requires that the defendant: 1) intentionally caused the interference with the landowner’s use and enjoyment of their property; and 2) intentionally engaged in conduct or behavior that caused the nuisance in the first place.
- Negligent nuisance requires that interference with the landowner’s user of enjoyment of their land is the result of the defendant’s negligence, and a negligence nuisance claim is governed by ordinary negligence principles.
- Strict-liability nuisance. A defendant can be held strictly liable for a nuisance when the defendant’s conduct is an “abnormally dangerous activity”. It does not matter if the defendant’s conduct is out of place in its surroundings. Strict liability principles are reserved for the most dangerous or risky activities or conduct.
In this case, the Gardiners claimed that the compressor was out of place in its surroundings and was unreasonably loud. The Supreme Court did not determine that the compressor’s existence near the Gardiners property was enough to constitute a strict-liability nuisance, since the compressor was not overly dangerous. However, the Court did agree that Crosstex’s activities could constitute intentional or negligent nuisance, but held that making that determination was up to the trial court. The Texas Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to apply the nuisance standards laid out in its decision.
The Texas Supreme Court reviewed the history of nuisance claims, and also set out the requirements of a nuisance claim in detail, including:
- To prove a nuisance (that is, a legal injury based on interference with use and enjoyment of land), a plaintiff must establish that the effects of the substantial interference on the plaintiff are unreasonable—not that the defendant’s conduct or land use was unreasonable.
- The standard for determining whether the effects of the interference are unreasonable is an objective one, i.e., the effects of the defendant’s conduct or land use must be “such as would disturb and annoy persons of ordinary sensibilities, and of ordinary tastes and habits”.
- The interference must be substantial, and determination of whether a defendant’s interference with a plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of land is substantial or whether any particular effect of that interference is unreasonable requires consideration and balancing of a multitude of factors, depending on the circumstances of the case at hand, including:
– the character and nature of the neighborhood, each party’s land usage, and social expectations;
– the location of each party’s land and the nature of that locality;
– the extent to which others in the vicinity are engaging in similar conduct in the use of their land;
– the social utility of each property’s usage;
– the tendency or likelihood that the defendant’s conduct will cause interference with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their land;
– the magnitude, extent, degree, frequency, or duration of the interference and resulting harm;
– the relative capacity of each party to bear the burden of ceasing or mitigating the usage of their land;
– the timing of each party’s conduct or usage that creates the conflict;
– the defendant’s motive in causing the interference; and
– the interests of the community and the public at large.
The opinion of the Texas Supreme Court in this case is truly a textbook of nuisance law, and the Court has done Texans a real service in clarifying the law in this area.