Nuisance Actions in Small Claims Court

Nuisance Actions in Small Claims Court

By Howard Beckman
Attorney at Law

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(Revised August 2, 2016)

Small claims courts throughout the U.S. provide easier, less formal, access to judicial enforcement of the law than do the more familiar trial courts (so-called courts of record). In several states the parties may not be represented by attorneys at law. Rules for small claims courts vary from state to state, but generally practices are quite similar across states. The federal court system does not have an equivalent of the state small claims court. Most cases in small claims courts are for recovery of small amounts for goods or services or disputes between landlords and tenants.

One case in a California small claims court, a claim for monetary damages due to airplane noise nuisance, was remarkably effective in dealing with a major commercial airport and has had important legal consequencs. (See San Francisco Internatonal Airport under "Cases" below.) In fact, the success of the case spawned a movement in the San Francisco Bay Area to use the same strategy to rid neighborhoods of drug houses. This movement has become so successful throughout the U.S. that many municipalities with home-based drug dealing problems now actively promote the strategy of mass filings in small claims court to apply pressure on negligent property owners. (See for example the County of San Diego circular distributed in the community of Chula Vista, California.)


Los Angeles International Airport (1968 - 1979) -- In 1968 more than 800 neighbors of the airport joined in an action for inverse condemnation in the Superior Court (not the Small Claims Division). Plaintiffs alleged that the frequent and regular noise of aircraft using the airport so disrupted their lives that it amounted to a taking of property for which the City of Los Angeles should compensate them. By the time the case was resolved on appeal only 41 plaintiffs remained. In this case the California State Supreme Court ruled that a municipality that owns and operates an airport is liable on a nuisance theory for personal injuries sustained by nearby residents and caused by noise from aircraft using the facility (see Greater Westchester Homeowners Association v. City of Los Angeles, Calif. Sup. Ct. 1979, 603 P.2d 1329; cert. denied 1980, 449 U.S. 820.)

The history of this mass action is described in the article "Grassroots Impact Litigation: Mass Filing of Small Claims" (see under "Literature" below). The authors compare the approach in this case to that of the Small Claims Court action in the case against San Francisco International Airport (see below).

San Francisco International Airport (1981 - 1983) -- In 1981 more than 170 individuals separately sued the City of San Francisco, owner of S.F. International Airport, in small claims court, alleging that noise from aircraft arriving at SFO was depriving the plaintiffs of the peaceable enjoyment of their homes. (Dyson v. City and County of San Francisco, No. 50885, Cal. Mun. Ct., San Mateo Co., 1982.) The court consolidated the actions for hearing. After another 183 complaints were filed, the City filed a petition in Superior Court for a writ of mandamus, seeking to enjoin the Small Claims Court from hearing the claims. The Superior Court ruled that the Small Claims Court did have jurisdiction to hear the plaintiffs' cases together, and denied the City's arguments that all the claims amounted to a class action or that the total amount of the claims made the small claims court an inappropriate forum.

San Francisco city officials were appalled at this outcome and appealed the decision. At the same time they used their considerable political muscle in the state legislature, through Speaker Willy Brown, to have the legislature enact in 1982 an urgent Moratorium on Small Claims Actions Against Airports. The moratorium did not affect the City's appeal, however, and the City was dealt a setback when the court of appeal affirmed that small claims courts have jurisdiction to hear claims that raise complex issues. Moreover, the court said, the jurisdictional limit on damages in small claims court applies to individual plaintiffs, not the aggregate amount of consolidated suits. Finally, the court held that consultations with attorneys by claimants in small claims court was constitutionally protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (right to petition for redress of grievances) and thus Code of Civil Procedure s. 117.4 (prohibiting attorneys or nonclaimants from taking part in small claims court litigation) has no effect to the extent it conflicts with the fundamental rights of citizens to act collectively in court actions. (See City and County of San Francisco v. Small Claims Div., Municipal Court of San Mateo Co. (Eisenberg) (1983), Ct. App. 1st Dist.; 141 Cal.App.3d 470, 190 Cal.Rptr 340.)

By the time the appeal was concluded, the City had spent over $800,000 defending itself from the lawsuits. In exchange for the citizen group's pledge not to file any more lawsuits, the City agreed to citizen representation in a serious program of noise abatement, which included banning Concorde jets from using the airport.

The history of this multi-year legal struggle is discussed in the article "Grassroots Impact Litigation: Mass Filing of Small Claims" (see under "Literature" below).

San Jose International Airport (1974) -- In this case about 250 plaintiffs filed for monetary damages for both noise nuisance and inverse condemnation. The trial court's certification of plaintiffs as a class was reversed by the California Supreme Court on the grounds that plaintiffs shared insufficient "community of interest" because of their claims of inverse condemnation (see City of San Jose v. Superior Court). More than half the plaintiffs withdrew following aggressive discovery demands by the airport's attorneys. Most of the remaining plaintiffs accepted a low settlement offer from the City of San Jose. With very few remaining (nonsettling) plaintiffs, the plaintiffs' attorneys withdrew and prosecution of the lawsuit was not pursued. The history of this mass action is described briefly in the article "Grassroots Impact Litigation: Mass Filing of Small Claims" (see under "Literature" below).