Public nuisance is one of the oldest actions of law in the country. In legal terms, public nuisance is defined as “an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public.” It was traditionally used as a remedy relating to the use of land, usually brought by government entities. However, over time, public nuisance claims have been brought by individuals or via mass torts against companies for a variety of complaints.
The term “unreasonable interference” means that the person’s or entity’s conduct must significantly interfere with the public’s health and safety, and must adversely affect a major portion of the community. Many environmental activists have successfully filed nuisance actions against companies or parties, alleging they caused environmental pollution.
For example, a 2018 decision by a North Carolina jury held Smithfield Foods accountable for breaking public nuisance laws for failing to stop “the obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance” resulting from closely packed hogs.
And, Plattner Verderame, P.C. itself has filed nuisance lawsuits on behalf of residents in Tonopah against Hickman Family Farms, claiming the company is a nuisance to the community.
The evolution of public nuisance actions is happening in real time
For years, public nuisance claims were almost exclusively for claims related to property. However, public nuisance law has now extended into less tangible areas as well. For example, in 2019, the state of Oklahoma sued pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson under public nuisance law over its marketing and promotion of opioids – and won.
This unusual application of public nuisance law could set a precedent for further product liability actions under this theory, and we may see future actions across a wide swath of industries.
Currently, legal experts are discussing the viability of public nuisance claims involving COVID-19. Although the use of public nuisance theory in the Oklahoma opioid lawsuit may be considered novel, some plaintiffs are using the decision as a basis for suits related to the coronavirus.
In Rural Cmty. Workers All. v. Smithfield Foods, for example, the plaintiffs took Smithfield Foods to court over COVID-related safety concerns. They argued, under public nuisance law, that Smithfield’s failure to take proper safety precautions and provide a safe work environment constituted a public nuisance, because that failure would cause an increased spread of the virus throughout the plant and the adjacent communities.
Although federal court eventually dismissed the suit on procedural grounds, the case does show that the theory of public nuisance can transfer to things like pharmaceuticals, products and pandemics. McDonald’s workers in Chicago sued the restaurant chain under the same theory of liability for failing to provide adequate COVID-19 safety measures, but again the suit was struck down. However, the judge in this case did order the franchises named in the suit to enforce all mask-wearing policies and train employees on social distancing.
The injury attorneys at Plattner Verderame, P.C. are watching this emerging area of case law with interest. If you have questions about public nuisance law and related complaints, feel free to contact us today. For a free, no-obligation case evaluation in our Phoenix or Tempe office, reach out to a member of our firm by calling 602-266-2002 or by completing our contact form.