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Don't Sue People for Just Being Annoying: Judge

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By Deanne Katz, Esq. on July 09, 2012 9:46 AM

A lawsuit is a powerful tool for curbing annoying behavior by neighbors or acquaintances. But a recent case decision questions the legitimacy of using the courts to resolve petty differences.

In the latest technical spat, Apple sued Motorola with each party trying to prevent the other from selling a smartphone. Both claimed patent infringement but Judge Richard Posner called them out for suing each other over something else - annoyance.

If the issue is misuse of the law, the ruling may also apply to personal lawsuits.

Posner dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning parties can't refile the complaint although they can appeal his ruling.

His dismissal turned on the fact that neither party had proven any real damages. Nominal damages can be awarded to compensate a legal wrong in the absence of real injury, but he concluded it's not appropriate to sue on those grounds according to TechDirt.

The case dealt with highly technical patents, but the ruling is fairly applicable to many issues brought before the court, especially tort cases that deal with personal injury.

The law itself often confuses the issue since the legal claim "nuisance" sounds like it punishes annoying behavior, but the reality is more nuanced.

Laws against nuisance are designed to protect you against unreasonable action that interferes with enjoyment of your property. Courts weigh the social value of the claimed nuisance against the social value of the activity it interferes with. The law punishes activities that are obnoxious in the strictest sense but not necessarily illegal.

If your neighbor has a large and smelly garbage heap in their backyard, you might have a nuisance claim. But if the neighbor plays classical music at a reasonable volume in the afternoons and you hate Beethoven, chances are you won't prevail in court.

These are extreme examples and in reality the line is fuzzier. But the test is reasonableness - if the annoying behavior is reasonable there's probably not a legal claim.

If you find yourself dealing with annoying behavior, the first step is generally to approach the person and ask them to stop or limit their actions. Providing concrete examples of how it affects you and being willing to compromise can help resolve the issue.

If the problem continues an attorney can help you figure out your legal options and potentially build a case.

Like Posner said in his recent decision, the key is damages. If the annoying behavior is causing you some real injury, a lawsuit may be appropriate. If the only injury is your frustration, a non-legal course of action is probably best.

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