When Can An Action for Nuisance Be Brought Against a Public Entity?
An action for nuisance may be brought against a public entity unhampered by the TCA. Private nuisance is but one possible theory for recovery of damages caused by the invasion of one's interest in the private use and enjoyment of land. That interest may be invaded by more than one type of conduct, i.e., the conduct may be intentional, it may be unintentional but caused by negligent or reckless conduct, or it may result from an abnormally dangerous activity for which there is strict liability. One is subject to liability for private nuisance if the invasion is either:
(a) intentional and unreasonable, or
(b) unintentional and otherwise actionable under the rules controlling liability for negligent or reckless conduct, or for abnormally dangerous conditions or activities.
[Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 822 (1979).]
The conduct necessary to make the actor liable for a private nuisance may consist of an act or a failure to act under circumstances in which the actor is under a duty to take positive action to prevent or abate an interference. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 824 (1979). An invasion is intentional if the actor purposely causes it or knows that the invasion is substantially certain to result from his conduct. An intentional invasion of another's use is unreasonable if:
(a) the gravity of the harm outweighs the utility of the actor's conduct, or
(b) the harm caused by the conduct is serious and the financial burden of compensating for this and similar harm to others would not make the continuation of the conduct not feasible.
[Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 826.].
Water discharge from a broken storm drain pipe is most likely an actionable nuisance. See, e.g., City of Oxford v. Spears, 228 Miss. 433 (1956) (There is no question that an invasion of one's interest in the use of downstream waters may constitute a nuisance); Sterling Iron and Zinc Co. v. Sparks Manufacturing Co., 55 N.J.Eq. 824 (E. & A. 1896) (New Jersey long ago recognized that the pollution of a watercourse may constitute an actionable nuisance); Bengivenga v. Plainfield, 128 N.J.L. 418 (E. & A. 1942) (municipalities were held liable for nuisance resulting in water pollution, although the legal analysis upon which liability was based, active wrongdoing, is now outdated); Borough of Westville v. Whitney Home Builders, 40 N.J. Super. 62, 68 (App. Div. 1956) (Our courts have held that the discharge of treated sewage effluent into a running stream is not necessarily an unreasonable riparian use in today's civilization, but that it may be unreasonable if the harm from doing so outweighs the benefit).
Presented with the question of whether a public entity can be liable for a nuisance as recognized by the TCA, our Supreme Court concluded that it is for two reasons: First, sections of the Tort Claims Act may be interpreted as making public entities liable for nuisance under the standards provided by the Act, and second, in light of the history of municipal liability in this area, the Supreme Court perceived no intent to eliminate this liability.
With respect to the statutory recognition and continuation of the nuisance cause of action, the two sections of the act implicated are N.J.S.A. 59:4-2 and N.J.S.A. 59:2-2. The former creates liability for injury caused by the dangerous condition of a public entity's property. Nothing in this section has been construed to impose liability upon a public entity for a dangerous condition of its public property if the action the entity took to protect against the condition or the failure to take such action was not palpably unreasonable. Thus, this section imposes liability upon a municipality in its status as property owner for nuisance where its actions can be found to be "palpably unreasonable."
In sum, an action in nuisance may be maintained against a municipality under and subject to the standards of the Tort Claims Act, so long as Plaintiff shows that the action taken or failure to act by the public entity was palpably unreasonable. See, e.g., Lyons v. Twp. of Wayne, 185 N.J. 426, 434 (2005) ("When analyzing a nuisance . . . wrongful conduct is not limited to the creation of the condition. Rather, a failure to physically remove or legally abate that condition, resulting in the physical invasion of another's property, also constitutes wrongful conduct."); Gould & Eberhardt, Inc. v. City of Newark, 6 N.J. 240, 243 (1951) ("[A] municipality does not have the right to collect surface water and discharge it upon private property in greater quantity and with greater force than would occur from natural flow, so as to cause substantial injury."); Sheppard v. Twp. of Frankford, 261 N.J. Super. 5, 8 (App. Div. 1992) (noting that injunctive relief was appropriate because unreasonable discharge of storm waters by township onto plaintiffs' property created continuing nuisance); Black v. Borough of Atlantic Highlands, 263 N.J. Super. 445, 453 (App. Div. 1993) (allowing nuisance cause of action for failing to prune crab apple trees creating dangerous condition on adjacent private property).
In Russo Farms v. Vineland Bd. of Educ., 144 N.J. 84 (N.J. 1996), the Plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against, inter alia, the Vineland Board of Education (the Board) and the City of Vineland (the City) for damages to their crops and farmland from flooding that resulted from the improper siting and construction of a public school located across the street from their property and by an inadequate drainage system on a bordering street. Plaintiffs claimed that the Board and City were liable under a nuisance theory because the Board and City's use of their property invaded plaintiffs' use and enjoyment of their land. The Court noted that invasion was a physical invasion, which ordinarily sounds in trespass, but "the flooding of the plaintiff's land, which is a trespass, is also a nuisance if it is repeated or of long duration." See also Hennessy v. Carmony, 50 N.J. Eq. 616, 618 (Ch. 1892) (throwing water on another's property once constitutes a trespass, "to continue to do so constitutes a nuisance").
When a court finds that a continuing nuisance has been committed, it implicitly holds that the defendant is committing a new tort, including a new breach of duty, each day, triggering a new statute of limitations. That new tort is an "alleged present failure" to remove the nuisance, and since this failure occurs each day that the defendant does not act, the defendant's alleged tortious inaction constitutes a continuous nuisance for which a cause of action accrues anew each day. See also Sheppard v. Township of Frankford, 261 N.J. Super. 5, 8-9 (App. Div. 1992) (noting that disposal of water runoff onto plaintiff's property created continuing nuisance).
It is pretty well settled that periodic flooding due to defective construction of a drainage system constitutes a continuing tort. The Russo Farms court held that a nuisance is continuing when it is the result of a condition that can be physically removed or legally abated. In such a case, it is realistic to impute a continuing duty to the defendant to remove the nuisance, and to conclude that each new injury includes all elements of a nuisance, including a new breach of duty. On the other hand, when the nuisance cannot physically be removed, it is unfair to impose a continuing, impossible to fulfill duty to remove the nuisance.
Accordingly, the continued flooding of a landowner’s property would be considered an actionable continuous nuisance. See Russo Farms, supra, 144 N.J. at, 97-105 (holding that TCA permits nuisance and negligence causes of action for damages caused on private property by dangerous condition on public entity's property created by school drainage and municipal storm-water drainage system); Medford Lakes, supra, 90 N.J. at 591-96 (allowing action for nuisance for damage to lake caused by discharge from municipally owned and operated sewage treatment plant); Saldana v. DiMedio, 275 N.J. Super. 488, 499 (App. Div. 1994) (allowing cause of action against municipality for dangerous condition on its property for fire that spread from city-owned abandoned building to privately-owned property); Sheppard v. Township of Frankford, 261 N.J. Super. 5 (App. Div. 1992) (in a nuisance case that involved a public entity's disposal of storm-water runoff onto private property the court found a continuous nuisance existed where the storm-water drainage system at issue "enhanced, concentrated, and sped up the flow of the storm water into the drainage ditch," thereby causing flood damage on the plaintiff's property).