Is your neighbor a nuisance or merely annoying?

A nuisance is “anything which is injurious to health, including but not limited to the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.” CAL. CIV. CODE § 3479.

Neighbor disputes are common in populous cities. Having an issue with the person next door can also be frustrating, but not all bothersome behavior by a neighbor is a nuisance. While you may not like the type of music your neighbor listens to during daytime hours or the smell of meat cooking when your neighbor uses their barbeque, these things are not nuisances.

A nuisance is something that is unreasonable, unwarranted, or unlawful such that it substantially interferes with your ability to live peacefully in or to enjoy your property. The most common example of neighbor nuisance is excessive noise coming from a continuously barking dog, from a loud stereo or TV, or from habitual late night parties. Other recurrent examples of nuisance are crime being conducted on the property such as prostitution or drugs sales, and activity that is offensive to the senses or one’s health such as the presence of vermin or accumulation of excessive garbage and junk in the neighbor’s backyard.

Can I sue my neighbor to stop the nuisance?

Depending on what kind of nuisance it is, you may be able to sue your neighbor. There are two types of nuisances—public nuisance and private nuisance. A public nuisance is one that affects an entire community, neighborhood, or a large group of people. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3480. A private nuisance affects an individual or a small number of people. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3481.

In a private nuisance that affects only an individual or a few individuals, a person may bring a lawsuit against the neighbor for money damages and for an injunction. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3501. If the neighbor allows their dog to continuously bark every night, which causes you to lose sleep, you may have a case against them. Before bringing a lawsuit, a person should try to resolve the dispute first with the offending neighbor, or work with their landlord if their neighbor lives in the same building. The relevant local agency (such as police, animal control, department of health, etc.) that is responsible for enforcing the regulation that the neighbor is violating should also be called. If there is no resolution, a case can be brought against the neighbor. Even if the court does not order the disturbance to stop, making a nuisance neighbor pay a money judgment may be effective in resolving the disturbance.

In a public nuisance that affects a large number of people, “any public body or officer authorized thereto by law” may abate the activity. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3494. Typically when the nuisance is one that is a criminal offense that affects the public, the city will initiate an action to abate it. For example, if your neighbor is conducting dogfights or cockfights on the property, this constitutes a public nuisance. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3482.8. Because this activity is a crime, the city would be responsible for stopping it. CAL., PENAL CODE §597. But, an individual may also be able to bring a lawsuit for damages against the neighbor for a public nuisance if they can show that the nuisance is one that is “specially injurious” to them. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3493. An individual can sue for a public nuisance if they suffered a harm that is different in kind from the harm suffered by the public at large. Venuto v. Owens, 22 Cal. Ap. 3d 121, 124 (1971).

To determine if your neighbor is causing a private nuisance, public nuisance, or both, you should consult with a tenant attorney.

Can I use self-help to stop my neighbor’s nuisance?

An individual that is affected by a private nuisance may stop the nuisance by removing or destroying the thing that is the nuisance if they can do so with using reasonable care so as to not cause unnecessary damage to the property where the nuisance exists. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3502. Because self-help is limited to a very narrow set of circumstances, it is not recommended. Tenants who desire to use self-help to stop their neighbor’s nuisance should consult with an experienced tenant attorney before doing so.

If the neighbor causing the nuisance and I live in the same building, is my landlord liable?

Implied in all California leases is a covenant of “quiet enjoyment”. CAL. CIV. CODE § 1927. Landlords have a duty to ensure that tenants can peaceful possess their rental unit free of disturbances, and in extreme cases may take steps to evict bothersome tenants to abate a nuisance. Davis v. Gomez, 207 Cal. App. 3d 1401, 1404 (1989).

A continuous disturbance caused by things such as excessive noise or other tenant’s smoking in the building may be so great that it interferes with a tenant’s quiet enjoyment. Although the nuisance may be caused by another tenant in the building and not by the landlord, the landlord may be held accountable if after being notified of the disturbance they take no action against the offending tenant. Landlords have a duty to ensure that tenants can peacefully possess their rental unit free of disturbances, and in extreme cases may take steps to evict bothersome tenants to abate a nuisance. Davis v. Gomez, 207 Cal. App. 3d 1401, 1404 (1989).

A tenant may wish to remain in their unit and sue the landlord for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. Or, when a nuisance is so substantial to the point that the tenant must move out of the apartment, the tenant may bring a lawsuit against the landlord for constructive eviction.

If your landlord is the person that is causing the nuisance, please see “Landlord Nuisance”.

If the nuisance has stopped, can I still sue my neighbor?

Yes. If the neighbor has stopped the activity or behavior that was the nuisance, you may still recover damages for the past existence of the nuisance. CAL. CIV. CODE § 3484. Even if you used self-help to stop the nuisance, you may still also file a lawsuit against your neighbor for damages.

What are the recoverable damages in a private nuisance action?

If your use or enjoyment of your home is harmed because of the acts or omissions of your neighbor, you may be able to recover money damages and an injunction against the continuance of the nuisance.

Tenants considering suing a neighbor for nuisance should contact Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak with a tenant lawyer about their options.