The Supreme Court of Texas clarified the Texas nuisance doctrine in Crosstex N. Tex. Pipeline, L.P. v. Gardiner.  Justice Boyd opened by noting that Dean Prosser declared nuisance as the law’s “garbage can.”  He proceeded to clean up this area of the law.

The Court said “nuisance” refers not to a defendant’s conduct or to a cause of action, but to a type of legal injury involving interference with the use and enjoyment of real property.  A defendant can be liable for causing a nuisance if it intentionally causes it, negligently causes it, or—in limited circumstances—causes it by engaging in abnormally dangerous or ultra-hazardous activities.

Crosstex operates a natural-gas pipeline.  It purchased a tract along the pipeline’s path in rural Denton County to use for a compressor station.  The Gardiners own an undeveloped 95-acre ranch across the road.  Crosstex installed “hospital-grade” mufflers on the compressor-station engines, which it believed sufficient to eliminate unreasonable noise levels.  It was not.  One neighbor said the noise was like “an engine of a locomotive sitting on [his] driveway.”  Another said the noise was like “standing in the middle of an airport with jet airplanes taking off all around.”  Crosstex tried multiple mitigation efforts, but a Crosstex representative admitted the building needed to be fully enclosed and Crosstex didn’t have the money.

The Gardiners complained that the compressor station greatly diminished their ranch’s value and ruined both their financial investment and their ability to use and enjoy their land.  The trial court submitted intentional-nuisance and negligent-nuisance claims to the jury, which found Crosstex had not intentionally created a nuisance, but it had negligently created a nuisance that was permanent and reduced the ranch’s fair market value by over $2 million.

Justice Boyd’s unanimous opinion confirmed the trial court’s submitted definition.  A ‘nuisance’ is 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.  The court said the term “nuisance” does not refer to the “wrongful act” or to the “resulting damages,” but only to the legal injury—the interference with the use and enjoyment of property—that may result from the wrongful act and result in the compensable damages.  To qualify as a legal injury, the interference must be “substantial,” in light of all the circumstances.  The “unreasonableness” inquiry focuses on the interference’s effect on the plaintiff’s comfort or contentment, not on the defendant’s conduct.  It is based upon an objective standard of persons of ordinary sensibilities, not on the subjective response of the plaintiff.  The “substantial” and “reasonableness” inquiries require balancing of the following factors:

  •  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 use of their land;
  •  the social utility of each property’s usage;
  • the likelihood that the defendant’s conduct will interfere 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.

Addressing the first category of potential liability, intentional nuisance, the court said the evidence must establish that the defendant intentionally caused the interference that constitutes the nuisance, not just that the defendant intentionally engaged in the conduct that caused the interference.  The effects of the substantial interference must be unreasonable.  The defendant’s conduct must not be unreasonable.  However, a defendant’s reasonable conduct could still be actionable if it was negligent.

Addressing the second category of potential liability, the court said a defendant can be liable for “negligently” causing a “nuisance” if the plaintiff proves “the existence of a legal duty, a breach of that duty, and damages proximately caused by the breach.”  A nuisance may result from “a failure to take precautions against a risk apparent to a reasonable man.”

The third category, strict-liability nuisance, includes claims based on conduct that invades another’s interests and is culpable because abnormal and out of place in its surroundings.  The court did not affirmatively endorse a strict liability claim based on a nuisance injury, but said that to the extent such a claim exists, it arises only out of conduct that constitutes an “abnormally dangerous activity” or involves an abnormally “dangerous substance” that creates a “high degree of risk” of serious injury.

            Three remedies are available for a private-nuisance claim: damages, injunctive relief, and self-help abatement.  The decision to enjoin the defendant’s conduct is a discretionary decision for the judge after the case has been tried and the jury discharged.  When an injunction or abatement is inappropriate, the claimant may recover damages.  Generally, when a nuisance is temporary, the landowner may recover only lost use and enjoyment that has already accrued.  If the nuisance is permanent, the owner may recover lost market value.

Crosstex N. Tex. Pipeline, L.P. v. Gardiner, No. 15-0049.

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