The Alabama couple said the attack on their home was unrelenting. They did their best to cope with it. The assailants: noise, odors, debris and scavenger birds that made it hard to breathe, sleep and generally live a relatively normal life. The source: a nearby solid waste transfer station.
More than 30 years ago, Barry and Ramona Yeager built their home in Theodore, Alabama, which is about 15 miles southwest of Mobile, and they have lived there ever since.
In 2011, Advanced Disposal Services Mobile Transfer Station LLC (ADS Mobile) got a permit from the state Department of Public Health, and then built and began operating a waste transfer station across the street from the Yeagers’ property. Collection trucks dump their loads onto the concrete tipping floor. ADS Mobile’s contractor, Mr. Bult’s Inc., removes the waste, loads it into tractor trailers, and transports it to a landfill. ADS Mobile continued to run the facility until it was sold in October 2020.
Fed up with the racket, smell, wind-blown trash and vermin (primarily seagulls) created by the transfer station operations, the Yeagers filed a complaint in the Mobile County state court, in October 2019, against ADS Mobile, Advanced Disposal Services Alabama LLC (ADS Alabama) and Mr. Bult's.
The lawsuit alleged that the transfer station was a nuisance, interfering with the Yeagers’ enjoyment of their property and diminishing its value. The complaint further charged that the defendants' acts and omissions were negligent and wanton and that the defendants willfully and intentionally violated state Board of Health rules by locating the transfer station within 500 feet of their home. They sought an injunction, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees.
For procedural reasons, the lawsuit was transferred to the federal district court serving southern Alabama. There, ADS Alabama and Mr. Bult's filed motions for summary judgment on all the Yeagers’ claims against them. For its part, ADS Mobile sought summary judgment on the allegations of wantonness, negligence, and violation of state regulations, and on their demands for injunctive relief, punitive damages, mental anguish damages, and damages for diminished property value.
With respect to the nuisance claim, ADS Mobile did not seek summary judgment in its entirety, but only to the extent that the claim was based on (a) independent conduct of third parties such as third-party collection truck owners, (b) operations of the transfer station after it was sold, and (c) any alleged violation of the 500-foot buffer zone regulation.
ADS Alabama and Mr. Bult’s were pleased and ADS Mobile was surely surprised when the district court disposed of all of the Yeagers’ claims by granting summary judgment in full to the defendants. If the ruling stood, the matter would be concluded. The Yeagers would not get a chance to present their case to a jury.
The Yeagers took their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit where a three-judge panel upheld the district judge’s ruling on all but one element of the Yeagers’ complaint. Based on testimony and other material submitted in connection with the summary judgement motions, the appeals court concluded that the couple had presented sufficient credible evidence to create a viable and legitimate nuisance issue for a jury: Did ADS Mobile's operation of the transfer station unlawfully interfere with the Yeagers’ use and enjoyment of their property? The panel remanded the claim to the district court for trial.
Under Alabama law, a nuisance is "anything that works hurt, inconvenience or damage to another," particularly a disturbance to the use and enjoyment of land. The impacts must be substantial and unreasonable and not "fanciful or such as would affect only one of a fastidious taste." To sustain a nuisance claim, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant acted, whether intentionally, unintentionally or negligently, in a manner that breached its legal duty and proximately caused the complained-of hurt, inconvenience, or damage.
Consequently, even a lawfully established business can be deemed a nuisance if, due to the nature of the business or the manner in which it is conducted, it directly causes significant annoyance or inconvenience to the occupants of adjacent properties, rendering them physically uncomfortable. In particular, Alabama courts have identified smoke, offensive odors, noise or vibrations as nuisances where their degree or extent “materially interferes with the ordinary comfort of human existence."
The district judge concluded that the noise from increased traffic around the transfer station fell short of constituting a nuisance under Alabama law and that, in any event, ADS Mobile was not responsible for any noise or other inconvenience caused by trucks owned by third parties. But as the appellate panel noted, “although increased traffic alone will not support an Alabama nuisance claim, it may be one element of such a claim. * * * [W]here heavy-truck traffic is an ‘inevitable consequence’ of a business's operation, the business may be held liable for a nuisance caused by those trucks traveling on nearby public roads even if the trucks are owned and operated by independent third parties.”
The district court record showed that the transfer station received waste seven days a week, opening at 4:00 a.m., Monday through Saturday. Mr. Bult's regularly transported ten tractor-trailer loads of garbage per day from the transfer station to the landfill five days a week. The appellate panel assumed that several times that number of smaller garbage trucks also entered and departed the facility daily. Heavy truck traffic beginning very early in the morning was therefore an inevitable – and foreseeable – consequence of the transfer station operations.
Mr. Yeager complained that trucks entering and leaving the transfer station created noise beginning when the facility opened and continuing throughout the day. Mrs. Yeager testified that she had been awakened as early as 3:30 a.m. "ten or more times" over a three-year span (since her retirement in December 2017) by the noise and flashing lights from trucks entering or waiting outside the facility gates.
Whether the noise caused by truck traffic was sufficient to constitute a nuisance (in combination with the odors and seagulls) "is a question of fact dependent on the nature and character of the noise, its constancy or frequency, and the extent of the inconvenience caused by it,” said the panel. “The Yeagers – who are presumed to be ordinary, reasonable people – testified that the noise from the garbage trucks and tractor-trailers interfered with the comfort and enjoyment of their home, especially early in the morning. * * * A decision on this question of fact must be left for the jury.”
The appeals court also found that the Yeagers had presented sufficient evidence of foul odors to create an issue for the jury on their nuisance claim. In particular, the panel faulted the district judge for giving short shrift to the Yeagers’ testimony by concluding that "evidence of an occasional odor that on one occasion required an outdoor event to be moved indoors is insufficient for a reasonable jury to find that the odor is a nuisance under the law."
In fact, the Yeagers’ testimony on odor was formidable. Mr. Yeager described a smell of "dead animals, rotten seafood, and garbage" that had become "really prevalent" in the last three or four years. He testified that the smell was strongest at around noon, could last until evening, and was worse in hot weather or when the wind blew from the direction of the transfer station.
He also related that the Yeagers' son, who owned property next door, had noticed the smell, and that their son-in-law had commented on the odor on "at least five" occasions when visiting the Yeagers. Other relatives and friends had also complained of the odor, although the couple continued to plan and host large gatherings. "A lot of times we will just go inside but we're going to do what we want to do," Mr. Yeager said.
Mrs. Yeager generally agreed with her husband, but stressed that the stench was present at night too. She also provided notes she had made regarding three or four occasions when the smell was particularly severe or when guests complained about the odor. Both Mr. and Mrs. Yeager referred to a Christmas gathering when their guests had to go inside because "they couldn't stand the smell outside."
The Yeagers also produced evidence for a jury to consider whether the presence of seagulls attracted to the facility contributed to the nuisance, the appeals court found. Mr. Yeager testified that the seagulls began flocking overhead immediately after the transfer station opened and had been continuously present ever since. He stated that he had found dead or injured seagulls in his yard, and that seagull droppings made noticeable stains on the black metal roof of their home.
Notably, the appeals court ruled that the Yeagers will be able to use circumstantial evidence to prove their case. “Mr. Yeager's testimony that there had been no seagulls present in the 20 years before the transfer station opened and that they began having problems with seagulls when the transfer station began its operations, coupled with a defense witness's admission that vectors (disease-carrying animals like rats or seagulls) are attracted to waste transfer stations, was sufficient to support an inference that the transfer station's operation caused the abundance of seagulls,” the panel said.
Other aspects of the Yeagers' nuisance claim, however, did not fare as well. For one thing, the Yeagers failed to present evidence supporting their claim that the transfer station's operations caused rats on their property. For another, although the Yeagers wanted ADS Mobile answerable for trash dropped in the street in front of their house and blown into their yard, they presented no evidence that trucks owned or controlled by any of the defendants had ever transported garbage to or from the transfer station with an uncovered load or that trash from the transfer station itself had blown into the street or surrounding properties.
“Unlike the traffic and noise from trucks using the transfer station, the failure of some third-party truck operators to comply with applicable regulations for transporting garbage was not foreseeable to ADS Mobile, and the litter resulting from that failure was not an ‘inevitable consequence’ of operating the transfer station,” the panel added.
Although the Yeagers contended that their property had lost value because of the transfer station, neither of them was able to even estimate the market value of their property with the transfer station in operation. When the case goes to trial, they will need expert testimony from a qualified appraiser. A jury's calculation of damages cannot be based on speculation.
The district court also granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the Yeagers' claim for damages for mental anguish, and the couple did not adequately challenge the decision in that regard. The Yeagers evidently relinquished other components of their complaint – negligence, wanton conduct, punitive damages, injunctive relief – by not responding to the defendants' motions for summary judgment on these elements. They also failed to respond at all to ADS Alabama's motion for summary judgment on all claims against it and to respond in any meaningful way to Mr. Bult's motion for summary judgment. The panel deemed all these claims to have been abandoned.
The Yeagers also did not contest ADS Mobile’s argument that it is not liable for any nuisance associated with the transfer station after its sale in October 2020. In addition, they did not pursue on appeal their independent claim based on ADS Mobile's alleged violation of state regulations requiring a 500-foot buffer zone between a transfer station and any residence. The appeals court deemed those aspects discarded as well.
Now that the dust has settled (no pun intended) the core of the Yeagers’ lawsuit remains alive and well. Next stop for them, a return to the federal courthouse in Mobile where a jury will hear about their plight.
Yeager v. Advanced Disposal Services Alabama, LLC, et al., No. 22-10789, 11th Circ., Dec. 30, 2022.