Nuisance Cases in Small Claims Court

Learn about private and public nuisances and how to successfully sue someone for being a nuisance in small claims court.

By , J.D. New York University School of Law

In legal theory, what's called a private nuisance occurs whenever someone prevents or disturbs your use or enjoyment of your property. For example, if your neighbor lets his dog bark all night, preventing you from sleeping, that's a private nuisance. If the barking persists and causes you real discomfort after you ask that the dog be kept quiet, you can sue.

To successfully sue someone for causing a private nuisance, you must prove that:

  • you own, rent, or lease property
  • the defendant created or maintained a condition that was
    • harmful to your health
    • indecent or offensive, or
    • obstructed your free use of your property
  • you did not consent to the person's conduct
  • the person's conduct interfered with your use or enjoyment of your property
  • the conduct would be reasonably annoying or disturbing to an ordinary person
  • you were, in fact, harmed (for example, your sleep was disturbed) by the person's conduct, and
  • the seriousness of the harm outweighs the public benefit of the conduct.

Public Nuisances

A public nuisance, by contrast, means that someone is acting in a way that causes a group of people to suffer a health or safety hazard or lose the peaceful enjoyment of their property. For example, lots of noisy airplanes suddenly begin flying low over a residential area, or a chemical plant lets toxic fumes drift over a neighboring property. Public nuisance suits are often initiated by groups of individuals who all file small claims suits at more or less the same time.

To successfully sue a person or group of people for creating a public nuisance, you must prove all the facts listed above relating to private nuisance and also that:

  • the condition affected a substantial number of people at the same time
  • any social usefulness of the offending conduct is outweighed by the seriousness of the harm, and
  • the harm you suffered was different from the harm suffered by the general public (for example, if a chemical plant's fumes are noticeable from the nearby freeway but ashes from the plant's smokestack fall into your swimming pool).

One fairly common example of this phenomenon involves the filing of multiple small claims lawsuits against drug-selling neighbors or their landlords.

Try mediation before filing a lawsuit against a neighbor. It is very difficult to put a dollar value on lawsuits against neighbors for antisocial acts, no matter how annoying. In addition, filing suit usually makes long-term relationships worse. For these reasons, disputing neighbors should always try mediation before turning to small claims court.