Hot Sauce Nuisance?

5 Nov 2013

You may wonder why you’re looking at this photo of a fairly commonly found hot sauce. Well, based on recent reports, the manufacturer of this hot sauce has a fight on its hands because of complaints by its neighbors regarding the odors. While I can’t speak for California law, in Michigan, when you open a book on nuisance it gets all kinds of confusing.

This is in part because the doctrine of nuisance is an old one and it is intertwined with land rights as old (or older) than the United States. There are:

  • public nuisances;
  • private nuisances (which sometimes can be both); and
  • nuisances per se,

and so on….  Ultimately someone may be held liable for private nuisance (relating to an  invasion of another’s interest in their private use or enjoyment of land – when not a trespass) if: (a) the other person has property rights relating to the use or the enjoyment interfered with; (b) the invasion results in significant harm; (c) the defendant’s conduct “legally caused” the invasion; and (d) the invasion is either intentional and unreasonable or unintentional and otherwise actionable under the rules governing liability for negligent, reckless or ultrahazardous conduct.

There are not many defenses in Michigan to a nuisance claim and while discussing them all would make this post really long, I want to mention two: (1) coming to the nuisance and (2) the statute of limitations.

Coming to the Nuisance – first of all, this defense likely wouldn’t apply to the sriracha plant if its neighbors sue, because the plant is only two years old.  Generally, this defense is applied by the courts when the operations complained about have been going on for quite a while and those who are complaining moved toward it. This was very commonplace 50 and 100 years ago when cities expanded near industry and more recently as suburbs have sprung up next to farms.  Although many people think it’s an iron clad defense, in Michigan, it is not. As recently as 2006, the Michigan courts stated that:   “a party’s actions in coming to a nuisance does not, in and of itself, preclude recovery, but rather, is a “circumstance [that] may properly be taken into account in a proceeding of this nature in determining whether the relief sought ought, in equity and good conscience, to be granted.” A court will look at all the facts and circumstances involved and decide  whether it should act for the parties seeking relief.”

Statute of Limitations  – In Michigan, the general statute of limitations to sue over a nuisance is 3 years.  For most issues relating to dust, smoke and odors, that is no problem – one will know about it and be able to sue in plenty of time.  However, when dealing with less obvious nuisances such as contaminated groundwater which might go undetected for a long time (and finding the source might take even longer), it becomes problematic.  Michigan courts had for many years applied a “discovery rule” that started the statute of limitations when the plaintiff discovered or should have discovered both its injury and the causal connection between the injury and the defendant.

In the last 10 years, however, the courts have taken a stricter view, holding, based on statute that a nuisance claim accrues when the wrong upon which the claim is based was done, regardless of the time when damage results. While there is not a lot of case law under this doctrine, it seems the courts will hold the wrong of the nuisance is when a substance is released and not when it is detected.  The one exception to this is the so called “continuing wrong” doctrine but the Michigan courts have been reluctant to apply that exception and often seem to hold that multiple releases are not multiple wrongs each triggering a different statute of limitations.


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