Hunter v Canary Wharf Limited [1997] AC 655

Key points

  • Nuisance is a tort to land and only those with a proprietary interest to the affect land can sue
  • Interference with TV reception is not actionable in nuisance

Facts

  • Cs were residents who complained that the erection of the Canary Wharf Tower interfered with their TV reception and the construction created excessive dust
  • Many of the Cs were mere licensees without title to the properties they stayed in (e.g., spouses, children, relatives, lodger, au pair, employees)

Held (House of Lords)

  • Appeal dismissed
  • Interference with TV reception is not actionable nuisance
  • The licensees have no standing as nuisance is a tort to land

Lord Goff

TV reception non-actionable

  • There is no right of action in nuisance for interference with television reception
  • The general principle is that at common law anyone may build whatever he likes upon his land
  • If the effect is to interfere with the light, air or view of his neighbour, that is his misfortune
  • The owner’s right to build can be restrained only by an easement for the benefit of windows or apertures on adjoining land

Nuisance is a tort to land

  • Licensees did not have right to sue, otherwise it would convert the “tort to land into a tort to the person”, in which damages could be recovered for something less serious than personal injury and the criteria for liability founded not upon negligence but upon striking a balance between the interests of neighbours in the use of their land

Lord Hoffmann

Standing

  • St Helens has led some to think that nuisance was divided into two torts, one for material injury to property and the other for causing sensible personal discomfort
  • For the former, it is clear that damage is caused to the land and hence only a person with interest in the land can sue
  • In the latter, there is a tendency to regard the action in respect of personal injury, with interest in land being only a qualifying condition
  • However, this is mistaken: the action is not for the discomfort but for causing injury to the land in terms of its diminished utility

Quantum of damages

  • In some cases, the owner can claim for consequential loss, such as a loss of profit, however, sensible personal discomfort suffered on land is not consequential upon injury to land but is itself injury to the amenity of the land
  • Hence, damages for nuisance may be affected by the size and value of his property but cannot be increased by the number of people on it

Justification

  • Once nuisance escapes the bounds of being a tort against land, there is no logic in compromise limitations such as C needing to be residing at home as proposed by the Court of Appeal in this case
  • Personal injury should only be actionable in negligence as it would be anomalous if rule for recovery of damages for personal injury were different when C was at home or at work
  • Negligence gives no remedy for discomfort that does not result in bodily or psychiatric harm and there is no logic in making an exception in cases of discomfort suffered at home

Commentary

Nolan defends the judgment on the following grounds

  • Even critics of the rule would retain it for cases of encroachment or physical damage to the land, abandoning the requirement for interference with comfort and convenience would effectively split the tort down the middle, with two actions with different standing rules
  • It is difficult to see how the objective approach to assessment of damages (diminution of utility of land) could survive a relaxation of the rules, unclear what principles will emerge
  • Trespasser may well cause distress or inconvenience to licensees so there would be little logic in jettisoning the rule for nuisance but maintaining it for the tort of trespass