1982 Moratorium on Small Claims for Airport Nuisance
and Subsequent Legislation


The Speaker of the California Assembly, Willie Brown, representing San Francisco, reacted swiftly and with a vengeance after several San Mateo County residents won judgments in the San Mateo County Small Claims Court in 1982 for monetary damages for noise from San Francisco International Airport.

Just a few days before the end of the regular legislative session in August 1982, Brown inserted into a noncontroversial bill governing airport funding a two-year ban on actions for nuisance against San Francisco Airport. The immediate motive for the ban was that the small-claims actions by hundreds of San Mateo County residents created the potential for multimillion dollar liability by the airport at a time when it was seeking to sell $35 million in bonds to fund the airport's expansion.

The bill passed with few legislators aware of its last-minute provisions and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 13, 1982. The moratorium was effective from January 1, 1983 to the end of 1984. (See the text of the bill at the end of this article.)

In December 1982 Legislative Counsel Bion Gregory said in a written opinion that the legislation was unconstitutional because it affected only one airport. Although the legislation, by its terms, applied to "an airport owned and operated by a county or city and county but physically located in another county or city," only one airport -- San Francisco International, owned by San Francisco but located in San Mateo County -- fit that definition. In addition, Gregory said, Brown's legislation violated constitutional provisions that require "just compensation" when a government agency (the city-owned airport) lessens the value of private property.

The Legislative Counsel's opinion had been requested by Assembly Republican leader Robert Naylor of Menlo Park, located in San Mateo County. Subsequently Naylor introduced a bill to repeal Brown's moratorium. At the same time Assemblyman Richard Robinson (Dem.-Santa Ana) sponsored a bill that would permanently ban small-claims actions for nuisance against any airport in California and instead require that such actions be filed in superior court. The Robinson bill also allowed only one suit for a given level of airport-related noise. It was supported by the airlines, labor unions, and several counties in which airports are located.

In April 1983 the Assembly Judiciary Committee rejected Naylor's bill and endorsed Robinson's bill. The Robinson bill was enacted by the legislature but vetoed by Governor George Deukmejian on Sept. 15, 1983. The legislature was unable to override the veto, and thus Brown's moratorium lapsed at the end of 1984.

The text of Brown's moratorium is as follows (only relevant portions are reproduced here; see Statutes of 1982, Chapter 1027).

SECTION 1. [not reproduced here]

SEC. 1.5 Section 3482.6 is added to the Civil Code, to read:

3482.6 (a) No action for damages alleged to have been caused by aircraft noise, brought pursuant to the provisions of this part [i.e., Part Three, "Nuisance", of the Civil Code], may be maintained against an airport owned and operated by a country or city and county but physically located in another county or city and county operating in compliance with the noise standards adopted by the Department of Transportation pursuant to Section 21669 of the Public Utilities Code including an airport operating in compliance with a variance issued to the airport by the Department of Transportation.

(b) No action may be maintained against an airport owned and operated by a county or city and county but physically located in another county or city and county by any person unless that person resides in an area where the level of noise exceeds the applicable criterion for residential areas established by the noise standards adopted by the Department of Transportation pursuant to Section 21669 of the Public Utilities Code.

(c) In no event shall the provisions of this section be used to prevent any legal action by an resident of a city of over 2,000,000 population.

(d) This section shall remain in effect only until January 1, 1985, and on that date is repealed unless a later enacted statute which is chaptered on or before that date deletes or extends that date.

SEC. 1.6 Section 3482.7 is added to the Civil Code, to read:

3428.7 (a) If, in any civil action, the operations of any airport owned and operated by a county or city and county but physically located in another county or city and county operating in compliance with the noise standards adopted by the Department of Transportation pursuant to Section 21662 of the Public Utilities Code are found to be a nuisance, they shall be deemed to be a permanent nuisance and not a continuing nuisance.

(b) [same as sec. 1.5, para. c above]

(c) [same as sec. 1.5, para. d above]

. . .

SEC. 6. The Legislature finds and declares that Sections 1.5 and 1.6 of this act are necessary since special facts and circumstances applicable to airports situated outside the jurisdiction of the public agency or operator, and not generally applicable, make the accomplishment of this purpose impossible by any general law. These provisions constitute a recognition by the Legislature of the unique problems that face public agency operators of airports which are not located within their own jurisdictions in terms of assuring the approval of their own residents for public works projects through the political processes. The Legislature further declares that the purpose of this act is impossible to accomplish by an general law, and that special legislation applicable only to these airports and their operators is therefore necessary.