The Supreme Court of Texas attempted to clarify private nuisance law in Crosstex North Texas Pipeline, L.P. v. Gardiner, No. 15-0049 (Tex. Jun. 24, 2016). The Court apparently believed this area of law to be an imprecise mess. Justice Boyd wrote a fifty-four page opinion trying to clean up the mess.
Crosstex involved a compressor station as part of a natural gas pipeline. The compressors were apparently loud enough to interfere with an adjacent ranch. The pipeline owner attempted to solve the noise problem but did not, according to the ranch owner.
First, the Court stressed that nuisance refers to the type legal injury involving interference with the use and enjoyment of real property and not to a defendant’s conduct or a legal cause of action. Specifically, 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. Notably, a party does not need to establish that the defendant’s conduct or land use was somehow unreasonable. The Court listed a litany of non-exclusive factors used to determine “substantial”and “unreasonable” under the circumstances.
If nuisance is the legal injury, how does a party establish liability for a nuisance? The Court discussed three categories: (1) intentional, (2) negligent, and (3) strict-liability for abnormal and out of place conduct.
A person intentionally causes a nuisance if the defendant acts for the purpose of causing the interference or knows the interference is resulting or is substantially certain to result from the defendant’s conduct. The key is showing that the defendant intentionally caused the interference, not engaged in the conduct that caused the interference. Under this standard, a defendant is liable even if the defendant disagrees that the interference is substantial or that the effects are unreasonable.
A negligent nuisance theory is straightforward enough–prove duty, breach, and damages caused by the breach. Generally, a petty doesn’t need to develop expert testimony to help the jury understand the duty issue.
The court confined strict liability for nuisances arising out of abnormal and out of place conduct to situations involving an abnormally dangerous activity or an abnormally dangerous substance that creates a high degree of risk of serious injury. The fact that an activity is abnormal and out of place does not create a remedy for nuisance.
The Court also noted these issues–both respect to whether a nuisance exists and the conduct creating the alleged nuisance–are generally fact issues for the jury. This issue is a big one because it likely precludes summary judgment on claims involving nuisances.
The Court touched on damages. For temporary nuisances, a claimant can recover loss of rental value, loss of use value, or possibly the cost of restoring the land. A plaintiff can recover lost market value for permanent nuisances.
Time will tell whether this decision will result in the clarity desired by the Supreme Court of Texas. One thing is clear: Crosstex is now the leading nuisance case in Texas.