When does your loud neighbor cause a private nuisance in California?

State law provides a legal claim for nuisance in certain situations based on problematic behavior of a neighbor.

Most people have experienced disturbing or annoying noise from a neighbor's property: loud music, shouting, vehicle engines, laughing ... the list goes on. Often, it only happens occasionally or the neighbor stops the noise when asked to do so.

Sometimes, noise is so frequent or so disturbing that it interferes with a neighbor's enjoyment of life or worse. For example, unwanted noise could prevent a child or an ill person from resting, break the concentration of someone working or reading, or create severe stress or anxiety.

Noise can create a private nuisance

When a neighboring landowner or occupier experiences problematic noise, the victim should speak with an attorney about whether the noise creates a legal claim for private nuisance, or any other cause of action such as intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

California law defines a nuisance as activity that injures health, including selling illegal drugs, indecent behavior or behavior offending the senses. Behavior that obstructs the "free use" of property and interferes with the "comfortable enjoyment of life or property" is also a nuisance.

(A public nuisance is one that impacts a community, neighborhood or "considerable number" of people. Anything not a public nuisance is a private nuisance, so conduct impacting one or less than a "considerable" number of people would be a private nuisance.)

Remedies for private nuisance

In a lawsuit for private nuisance based on noise (or on another basis like odor or vibration), the victim may request an injunction, meaning a court order that the noise stop, and for money damages. Damages are calculated based on the decrease in property value because of the noise and on the value assigned to the loss of enjoyment of the impacted property.

If the noise is especially severe or problematic, the plaintiff may be able to recover punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, which are those meant to punish a wrongdoer and deter others in the community. Punitive damages are only available if the behavior causing the nuisance was one of these:

  • Oppressive, meaning "despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person's rights"
  • Malicious, meaning causing intentional injury or "despicable conduct ... with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others"
  • Fraudulent, meaning intentionally using "misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact" to "depriv[e] a person of property or legal rights or otherwise caus[e] injury"

California law also allows the victim of private nuisance to remove or destroy the cause of the nuisance on the neighboring property in certain narrow circumstances. Sometimes notice to the neighbor must first be given. This remedy is called abatement and because of its assertive nature and the possibility of committing trespass if not carefully assessed, it is recommended to consult a lawyer before taking this step.

This is a broad introduction to a complicated area of California law. Anyone facing a potential claim for nuisance should seek legal advice as soon as possible.

The lawyers at David M. Sternberg & Associates in Walnut Creek represent clients in the Bay Area and across Northern California in nuisance lawsuits and a wide variety of real estate disputes.