As defined by Webster’s II New College Dictionary, the word “nuisance” means “something that is inconvenient or vexatious: bother.” That’s a concept that’s easily understood – when something (or someone) is a nuisance, then there’s an annoyance, or a bother.
But there’s a slightly different meaning in the law. Webster’s also notes that in a legal context, a “nuisance” is “a use of property or course of conduct that interferes with the legal rights of others by causing damage, annoyance, or inconvenience.”
These two definitions are the only two definitions of the word “nuisance” that is given in Webster’s II New College Dictionary.
There are many kinds of dictionaries. In addition to dictionaries of English words (such as Webster’s) there are also dictionaries that define and describe specialty words. For example, Means Illustratrated Construction Dictionary gives definitions (and pictures) of many different kinds of construction terms. And it’s possible for anyone to purchase Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions.
There are also Legal Dictionaries that define legal terms, words and phrases. One of these is Black’s Law Dictionary (seventh edition). Black’s definitions of “nuisance” occupies more than a one and a half pages of text. That’s a fairly clear indicator that “nuisance” is a concept that is pretty well developed in the law. Black’s defines “nuisance” as “A condition or situation (such as a loud noise or foul odor) that interferes with the use or enjoyment of property. Black’s notes that a “nuisance” isn’t necessarily something that is offensive to all people. For example, Black’s cites a United States Supreme Court case from 1926 for an example of a nuisance: “A nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place, like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.” But Black’s also observes that the concept of “nuisance” has a wide range of applications. “There is perhaps no more impenetrable jungle in the entire law than that which surrounds the word ‘nuisance.’ It has meant all things to all people, and has been applied indiscriminately to everything from an alarming advertisement to a cockroach baked in a pie.” (The original source of this statement is a famous legal work entitled “Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts §86, at 616.”)
The concept of “nuisance” is not new. It’s been around for many, many years. In an entertaining case from 1939, a New York court described as follows one particular case of nuisance “Claremont Inn, at 124th Street and Riverside Drive, is an old institution rich in historical incident. Acquired by the City in 1872, it has been under the jurisdiction of the Park Department, leased at various times to private persons to conduct as a place of refreshment. Renovated in 1934, it was converted from an expensive to a popular establishment. It consists of an indoor restaurant and bar and also a large outdoor pavilion with an outdoor modern dance orchestra. The outdoor section is open from about June 1st to the end of September. And the band plays from 7 P. M. to 1 A. M. (on Saturdays and holidays to 2 A. M.). It is noteworthy that this is the only open air dance orchestra in a residential section in any part of the City.”
The neighbors filed a lawsuit, asking the New York Court to order the Inn to close earlier each night due to “loud music, excessive noise, heedless conduct of its operators and boisterous behavior of its patrons.” The court noted that “Assurances have been given for the correction of many of the offending practices, such as rehearsals of the orchestra at 3 A. M.; the removal of refuse cans, and deliveries by tradespeople, with attendant clatter and rumbling of trucks, early in the morning; and congested traffic and parking, with resulting clamor and shouting, when the patrons of the Inn depart. But the defendants insist upon continuing the outdoor band to the hours above specified—and the residents of the district, claiming that their sleep is disturbed, insist on an earlier hour.” The case is reported as Peters v. Moses (1939) 12 N.Y.S.2d 735.
This was evidently quite an event each evening. The outdoor dance floor was located in a residential neighborhood. The dance band held rehearsals at 3 a.m. The band played until 1:00 a.m. each evening, except for weekends when it played until 2:00 a.m. With all of the noise, disturbance, and clamour of an outdoor dance, the neighboring residents were understandably up in arms.