Oil Spills: Liability (Part 2) – Trespass & Nuisance

In Part I of this post, we looked at the Rylands v Fletcher argument and also the “Polluter Pays” Principle. In this part we look at Trespass & Nuisance.

Trespass & Nuisance remedies include removal of the trespass and because removal of a trespass caused by oil in groundwater or soil can be extremely expensive, the viable threat of a mandatory injunction requiring clean up of the oil can serve as a powerful incentive to avoid it in the first instance. The relevant legal principles are discussed and the law of a number of states is explored to illustrate the variations in the principles involved as they are applied in individual cases.

One is subject to liability to another irrespective of whether he causes harm to any legally protected interest of the other. If intentionally hey

  • enters land possessed by the other, or causes a thing or a third person to do so, or
  • remains on the land, or
  • fails to remove from the land a thing which he is under a duty to remove.
Oil crossing (or trespassing) a boundary and causing a nuisance

Causing entry of a thing. the actor, without himself entering the land, may invade another’s interest in its exclusive possession by throwing, propelling, or placing a thing either on or beneath the surface of the land or in the air space above it. Thus, in the absence of the possessor’s consent or other privilege to do so, it is an actionable trespass to throw rubbish on another’s land, even though he himself uses it as a dump heap, or to fire projectiles or to fly an advertising kite or balloon through the air above it, even though no harm is done to the land or to the possessor’s enjoyment of it. 

In order that there may be a trespass under the rule stated in this Section, it is not necessary that the foreign matter should be thrown directly and immediately upon the other’s land. It is enough that an act is done with knowledge that it will to a substantial certainty result in the entry of the foreign matter. Thus one who so piles sand close to his boundary that by force of gravity alone it slides down onto his neighbor’s land, or who so builds an embankment that during ordinary rainfalls the dirt from it is washed upon adjacent lands, becomes a trespasser on the other’s land.

Injunctions for Trespass & Nuisance

Injunction is among the remedies available in the case of a trespass. 

injunction

Whether an injunction is appropriate, for either a trespass or a nuisance, depends upon a number of factors:

The appropriateness of the remedy of injunction against a tort depends upon a comparative appraisal of all of the factors in the case, including the following primary factors:

  • the nature of the interest to be protected,
  • the relative adequacy to the plaintiff of injunction and ofother remedies,
  • any unreasonable delay by the plaintiff in bringing suit,
  •  any related misconduct on the part ofthe plaintiff, 
  • the relative hardship likely to result to defendant if an injunction is granted and to plaintiff if it is denied,
  • the interests of third persons and of the public, and 
  • the practicability of framing and enforcing the order or judgment.

Although frequently treated as interchangeable, there are significant differences between a claim for trespass and a claim for nuisance:

Trespass & Nuisence Difference

A trespass is an invasion of the interest in the exclusive possession of land, as by entry upon it. A nuisance is an interference with the interest in the private use and enjoyment of the land, and does not require interference with the possession. A trespass was remediable at common law by an action of trespass; the private nuisance was remediable by an action on the case. Trespass and private nuisance are alike in that each is a field of tort liability rather than a single type of tortious conduct. In each, liability may arise from an intentional or an unintentional invasion.

For an intentional trespass, liability exists irrespective of whether there is harm; for a private nuisance, liability does not exist without significant harm. In trespass an intentional invasion of the plaintiffs possession is of itself a tort, and liability follows unless the defendant can show a privilege. In private nuisance an intentional interference with the plaintiffs use or enjoyment is not of itself a tort, and unreasonableness of the interference is necessary for liability.

Neighbours arguing

Among the important differences between trespass and nuisance is the requirement that the nuisance must cause “significant harm” before it is actionable,s and the harm caused by the nuisance must outweigh the utility of the conduct which causes the harm. Since neither of these are requirements for trespass, it is not only easier to prove a trespass but the relief obtained may be less constrained by having to engage in a precise balancing of the interests of the trespasser against those of the plaintiff. For example, the plaintiff will often obtain an injunction by showing that the property at issue is uniquely important, such as the family residence.

The legal preference for the rights of the person who has been subjected to a trespass over the rights of someone who has suffered a nuisance finds its roots in the common law difference between the rights of property owners and the rights of others:

Personal interests and property interests. During the nineteenth century the rule was generally declared that equity intervened only to protect property interests, and so an injunction would not issue to prevent a violation of a mere personal interest. In the early part of the current century, however, this limitation on the scope of injunctive relief was strongly repudiated by textwriters and substantially undermined in the courts by the common practice of finding tenuous “property interests” to justify the issuance of injunctions in situations in which the real purpose and result was to protect personal interests. In recent decades, the trend toward express abandonment of the property-right restriction has become stronger, and courts have commonly held that injunctions are to be granted to protect personal rights on the same basis as to protect property rights.

As the note observes, the gap between personal interests and property interests has been closing but in the area of pollution which creates a trespass, and the same pollution which creates a nuisance, the differences that remain, as noted above, are substantial. Not only is a trespass automatically actionable and no actual harm is required to be proven, but the law has generally approved relief from a trespass in the form of a total removal of the trespass while a nuisance need only be abated to the point where it no longer represents an “interference with the use and enjoyment” of the property. This latter concept is often used to defend a partial clean up of pollution on land not owned by the polluter because, it is argued, the remaining pollution does not create a substantial risk of personal injury.

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