26 July 2013

Need for peace and quiet leaves car auction firm fuming

The message:  Location dictates whether noise is a nuisance.

The case:  The Court of Appeal has emphasised the character of the locality is important in deciding whether a business is causing a nuisance, in Merthyr Tydfil Car Auction vs Thomas (11.07.13).

In 1989, Mr and Mrs Thomas bought their house in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. It is 10 to 15 metres from the lower yard of the defendant’s premises, which are used for vehicle auctions, particularly heavy goods lorries. Until 1995, the defendant mainly used its upper yard for business and, in 1997, obtained planning permission to use the lower yard too.

Mr and Mrs Thomas brought proceedings claiming damages for nuisance caused by noise and fumes. The noise was caused by constant engine noise and high-pitched reversing bleepers, frequent bangs and crashes, and guard dogs barking at night. The fumes were from the vehicles’ engines.

The trial judge held that the locality was mainly residential and the noise did constitute a nuisance, and he awarded £9,000 of damages. He held that the fumes were infrequent and of such short duration that they did not cause a nuisance.

The defendant appealed on the basis that the judge had failed to take account of the true nature of the locality and the basis for, and effect of the grant of planning permission for such use in 1997. As there were other businesses nearby and busy roads, and many other residents had no complaints, it claimed it was making a reasonable use of its premises and the Thomases were unduly sensitive.

The character of a locality is very important in determining what constitutes a reasonable use of land within that locality. The level of acceptable noise will be much higher in a manufacturing locality than a residential one. The leading case of Sturges vs Bridgman in 1879 states “what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey”.

The granting of planning permission for a noisy business may change the character of a locality, so the criteria for establishing a nuisance are higher than before. The defendant argued that the permission had only been granted because the use was compatible with the locality.

However, the Court of Appeal backed the judge. It thought the locality was still mainly residential and had not changed since the planning permission was granted. The judge had appreciated that residents in this area could not expect a noise-free environment but the Thomases were particularly affected by the noise given their proximity to the lower yard and were entitled to a reasonable level of peace and quiet.

The court took particular note of the steps taken by the defendant following commencement of proceedings to make more use of the upper yard and stop dogs barking as to reduce the noise.

This showed that the defendant could carry out its business in accordance with the planning permission without causing any unreasonable interference to Mr and Mrs Thomas.

Summing up: Merthyr Tydfil Car Auction vs Thomas

  • Residents claimed damages for nuisance caused by a nearby business’s noise and fumes
  • A judge held that the locality was mainly residential and awarded damages
  • The defendant appealed but the Court of Appeal upheld the decision.

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