Neighbor disputes over property rights have existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years. Lawsuits between neighbors occur when one property owner seeks to eliminate or limit the unjustifiable actions of an adjoining landowner. When the actions unlawfully interfere with a neighbor's possessory interest or right of full enjoyment, the owner seeking remedies may commence an action in court to recover damages.
Rights of Property Owners: Use and Enjoyment
Property owners have the right to peaceful possession, control, and enjoyment of their properties. They can exercise this right to the extent that it does not unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment of an adjoining landowner’s property. Unreasonableness in this context involves conduct that represents an invasion of another landowner’s legal privacy interest. The actions can be intentional, negligent or reckless disregard to the neighbor’s privacy interest in his land.
Private Nuisance Issues
When a property owner interferes with a neighbor’s use and enjoyment of his land, it may give rise to a cause of action for a private nuisance. In order to file an action for nuisance, the plaintiff must have a possessory interest in the property to the extent that he has a right to the use and enjoyment of the land. The defendant’s interference must be substantial and unreasonable to establish a private nuisance action. Courts may use several factors, such as the severity of the conduct, frequency, and length of time, to determine whether the defendant’s actions are considered substantial and unreasonable in light of the circumstances surrounding the case. The plaintiff must have endured some sort of harm as a result of the interference to receive damages and meet this burden of proof in court. Here are common types of private nuisance disputes between adjoining landowners.
• Loud noises at inappropriate times
• Loud noises for extended periods of time
• Foul odors coming from neighbor’s property
• Smoke emanating from neighbor’s property
• Vapor or gases from neighbor’s property
• Trees and shrubbery that interfere with the comfortable use and enjoyment of property
Neighbor Disputes Trees: Use and Enjoyment
In certain nuisance disputes, a tree may constitute an obstruction to an adjoining landowner’s use and enjoyment of the property. Property owners are held to a standard of reasonable prudence in maintaining trees and shrubs. For example, a tree branch that encroaches on a neighbor’s property, such as hanging over the roof, imposing on the driveway, hindering natural light or blocking drainage systems, may give rise to legal action. When a tree is obstructing the neighbor’s view, this interference may create a private nuisance. The intrusion must be intentional or negligent on behalf of the owner’s property where the tree is located, excluding obstructions caused by unforeseen occurrences and natural causes. Courts consider several factors to determine whether the plaintiff has met the burden of proof of establishing the elements of a nuisance and damages resulting from a tree obstruction. A court may order an injunction requiring the removal or cutting down the tree in addition to monetary damages if the plaintiff proves an injury or a decrease in property value.
Trespass Between Neighbors
A landowner or person with a possessory interest has the right of exclusive possession of the property. When the interference or obstruction involves a physical invasion of a neighbor’s property, it may give rise to a trespass action in tort law. When a tree encroaches on another’s property, the landowner does not have the automatic right to cut down the tree, if the action unlawfully trespasses on the neighbor’s property.
Neighbor Disputes Trees: Boundary Lines
When the trunk of a tree exists between two property lines, issues may arise between neighbors regarding the nuisance law and the rights of either to cut down all or part of the tree. When limbs or branches hang over a landowner’s property, he has the right to trim or cut down the portion of the tree that doesn’t go beyond the property line. The owner may acquire the consent of the neighbor if the trimming of the tree or shrub creates a trespass on the adjoining landowner’s property.
Even though trees, shrubs, and other vegetation add to the aesthetic value of properties and promote health and environmental sustainability, they can be the basis for legal disputes between neighbors. All landowners have the right to the comfortable use and enjoyment of their properties without unreasonable interference from neighbors. They have the right to the exclusive enjoyment of their properties. With a nuisance action, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the defendant’s conduct unreasonably interferes with his use and enjoyment of the property plus actionable damages, whereas, a trespass is established when the neighbor’s actions constitute an unjustifiable intrusion.