Barking Dogs: Suing for Nuisance in Small Claims Court
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If you can’t solve the problem of a neighbor’s barking dog, as a last resort you can sue the owner, on the ground that the dog is a nuisance that interferes with your use and enjoyment of your home. The least painful route is through small claims court, where procedures are simple and designed to be used without a lawyer. Fees in small claims court are also low, and the process is relatively fast—you'll get to court in a few weeks or months, not years.
Winning a lawsuit in small claims court can get you money (and satisfaction), but probably nothing else. In most states, small claims court judges only have the power to order someone to pay money. They can't give you what you really want: a court order telling your neighbor to keep the pooch quiet.
Still, making your neighbor fork over some money may be effective. And you can keep going back to court and asking for more as long as the nuisance continues.
Before You Sue
- Try to negotiate with the dog's owner. You’ll need to tell the judge you tried.
- Check the deadline for bringing suit. There is always a limit on how long you have to sue after an incident occurs. Usually, it's a year or two.
- Decide how much to sue for. You'll have to put a dollar amount on the harm you've suffered.
- Gather proof. You'll need witnesses, photos, or other evidence that the dog is a nuisance.
How Much to Sue For
How much money should you ask for? There is no simple formula to translate annoyance into dollars. Start with your actual out-of-pocket losses—costs to replace a dead rose bush or damaged fence, for example. For less tangible losses like lost sleep or time spent cleaning up dog droppings, pick a small amount for each day. If you've been suffering for months, even a small amount, multiplied by all those days, can add up.
If you want to ask for more than your state's small claims court limits, you'll have to sue in regular court.
Proving the Dog Is a Nuisance
If you're ready to sue, you're already convinced that the dog is a nuisance. "Nuisance," however, has a special legal meaning: any unreasonable or unlawful condition that interferes with the use of someone's property. Noisy parties in the middle of the night, smelly garbage, and barking dogs can all be nuisances to neighbors.
Rules vary from state to state, but you will probably have to prove that the noise (or other problem) is excessive and unreasonable. You may also have to prove that the nuisance causes you actual physical discomfort and annoyance.
EXAMPLE 1: Aaron’s neighbor has a beagle, Flash. The dog is well behaved, but beagles are hounds, and hounds howl. Whenever Flash hears a fire truck's siren (not too common in this quiet neighborhood), she turns her muzzle skyward and howls. Aaron hates the howling.
Is the beagle’s baying a legal nuisance to Aaron? Probably not. It's infrequent and doesn't substantially interfere with his enjoyment of his property; after all, the siren is probably already making more noise than the dog. A court isn’t going to conclude that it's unreasonable for hounds to howl occasionally.
EXAMPLE 2: Mattie lives next door to Fred, who keeps two big dogs and one little yapper in his small back yard. The dogs are always outside, and almost always, it seems to Mattie, barking. Their favorite time to chime in together is 6 a.m., when Fred goes out to feed them. Their barking goes on a good five minutes, with Fred trying to shut them up--by yelling. The commotion often wakes up Mattie. She is also often bothered by an unpleasant smell from Fred's yard; it's gotten so that she doesn't even open her windows on the side of the house bordering Fred's. And if that weren't enough, the dogs sometimes leave droppings in Mattie's front yard.
Is Fred's menagerie a nuisance? You bet. The noise is persistent, at its worst at a time when many people are sleeping, and isn't reasonable by normal community standards. The smell and the droppings also interfere with Mattie's use of her property.
How to Sue
Small claims court procedures are usually simple, but you've got to know where to start. Many courts offer booklets or online info explaining how to proceed. Get whatever materials your local court has, so you understand its special rules and way of doing things. Usually, to start a case, all you need to do is complete a fill-in-the-boxes form and file it with a small filing fee.
Courts in some parts of New York, California, and several other states offer free professional help to people heading to small claims court. In these courts, advisers answer questions and help people prepare for their court appearances.
Preparing for Court
The most important part of your small claims case comes before you set foot in the courtroom. Good preparation is essential.
You need to organize your case logically to present it to the judge. First, make a list of the points you want to get across. Let's take the example of Mattie and Fred, outlined above. Mattie has had enough of the noise and smell of Fred's dogs, and she’s tried, unsuccessfully, to get Fred to agree to mediation. The city health department hasn't taken action, either, so she decides to go to small claims court.
She looks up her city's ordinances online and finds an ordinance stating that dogs that bark loudly and disturb neighbors are a nuisance.
First, Mattie writes Fred a demand letter. A demand letter is required in some states, but it's always an excellent idea. Even if it doesn't bring results, it's a good way to organize your thoughts and communicate your point of view. And once you're in court, it shows the judge that you tried to solve the problem without court.
After waiting for a reply from Fred, which never comes, Mattie files her complaint, and the court clerk sets a date for the hearing. Next, she sits down to prepare. To win her case, she needs to convince the judge of four things:
- The noise, droppings, and odors from Fred's dogs are offensive.
- They interfere with her use of her property.
- Fred should compensate her for the inconvenience, annoyance, and physical discomfort she has suffered as a result.
- Reasonable compensation is $20 a day for the six months she's lived next door to Fred, or $3,600. The Missouri small claims court limit is $5,000, so she can ask for the full amount.
Now that she knows what she wants to prove, Mattie must gather evidence. First, she must show that the dogs are offensive, loud, and smelly. She can do this with physical evidence (photographs, documents, recordings) or with witnesses who will testify to the conditions.
Mattie decides to do both. First, she takes pictures that show how close Fred's yard is to her house, how many dogs he has there, and how messy the yard is. Second, she will bring another neighbor, Sarah, as a witness. Sarah lives across the street from Fred, and the barking has bothered her, too. She can testify both to the loudness of the dogs and the timing of their early morning feeding. If Sarah can’t testify in person, the court will probably accept a written statement from her. Witnesses’ statements should be brief and to the point.
Mattie’s own testimony will be the best way to show that the odors and noise from Fred's yard interfere with her use of her property—that is, they constitute a legal nuisance. She should testify to specific instances, complete with dates and times, that illustrate the problem. For example, she can describe a barbecue she tried to have in her back yard, but had to move inside because the dogs' barking made talking impossible, and the filthy conditions made breathing unpleasant. The testimony of a guest who was there would help convince the judge, too.
The third item is convincing the judge that Fred should compensate Mattie. That should follow directly from proving that there is a nuisance, but Mattie should bolster her efforts by showing that she tried to work things out with Fred and to get the city animal control department to do something. That way the judge knows that small claims court is her last resort. Here, copies of police or animal control reports will document her efforts.
When it comes to the amount Mattie is asking for, there's not too much she can do in addition to presenting convincing evidence about how obnoxious the dogs are. The judge will decide on an amount, based on the evidence and personal judgment.
The Small Claims Court Hearing
If you've never been to small claims court, watch some cases before your hearing is scheduled so you’ll be more at ease with court procedures.
The person bringing the lawsuit begins. Follow these steps:
- State your problem clearly and briefly. Go to the heart of the problem (in Mattie’s case, that Fred's dogs are noisy and smelly) not the background.
- Don't read your statement. A few notes should be enough to help you remember key points. You're much more likely to keep the judge's attention if you talk naturally.
- Present relevant documents to the judge in an orderly, organized way.
- Tell the judge how much money you're asking for.
When your opponent speaks, don’t interrupt or argue; you'll get a chance to respond later. Direct all of your comments to the judge, whom you should address as "Your Honor."
The whole thing should take about 15 minutes. And if you prepared well and you get a reasonable judge, you’ll leave with a judgment against the person you’re suing.