Can I sue my neighbor to stop the excessive holiday lights display?

You may find local holiday lights to be a nuisance -- but will a judge rule that it meets the legal definition of nuisance?

Question

My neighbor has set up a holiday lights display that would give Clark Griswold (of National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” fame) a run for his money – bright flashing lights, music, and an unending line of cars to see it all, far into the night. It is driving me nuts! What can I do about it?

Answer

If the display is so extreme that it affects your enjoyment of your own home, your best legal remedy may be a nuisance claim against your neighbor. If successful, a judge may order that the display be toned down or removed altogether.

Nuisance claims allege that either an individual or group has lost the use or peaceful enjoyment of property as a result of the actions of the accused. Unless you have other neighbors who are equally annoyed by the display, the action will likely involve only your rights (this is called a private nuisance).

As the plaintiff in this type of case, you would have to prove that:

(a) you own your property and have suffered some sort of harm

(b) the lights display prevents you from the use or quiet enjoyment of your property

(c) you did not consent to your neighbor’s actions in creating or maintaining the display

(d) your neighbor’s lights would reasonably disturb an ordinary person, and

(e) your harm outweighs any public benefit to the holiday lights display.

Whether or not your nuisance claim will ultimately succeed depends largely upon the specific facts of your situation. Does the light emitted or sound from the display result in you or a family member losing sleep? Is there a marked increase in the amount of traffic in front of your home as people drive by the display? Are sightseers leaving trash on your property? Are you having trouble getting into your driveway? Has the display caused you to lose power to the home repeatedly?  Are other neighbors expressing the same frustrations?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, you may have a shot at convincing a judge that your neighbor has gone too far.

Unfortunately, you face an uphill battle in this fight – judges are generally hesitant to interfere with individual property rights, and they also don’t want to be perceived to be a Grinch. Additionally, your neighbor can argue that any court interference with the display would be violations of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Courts are also typically reluctant to declare a temporary condition (assuming the lights WILL eventually come down) as a nuisance.

Before filing a lawsuit, the best course of action may be to talk to your neighbors about the display. Your neighbor may be willing to work with you on finding a middle ground, such as curtailing the hours of operation or turning down the music. If your other neighbors are just as upset about the display, you may find that peer pressure gets the job done more quickly than the courts ever could.

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