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New Jersey is a densely developed state. It is a comparatively small state, but a lot of people live in it. And because so many people live in such close proximity with one another, noise complaints are inevitable and commonplace.
The first question involving a noise complaint is this: Is this truly a noise violation, or is the complaining neighbor overly sensitive? We all have to live with each other and that means we all need to be respectful by not chronically being too loud. But it goes two ways. A complaining neighbor really should not complain about a generally compliant neighbor because once a year he or she throws a pool party that may be a little loud. That complaint would usually not be well received and instead would be perceived as sour grapes for not having been invited.
Many noise complaints can be handled at the municipal level. Some local enforcement authorities are certified to handle noise measuring equipment. If violations are found, citations against the wrongdoer can be filed and prosecuted in municipal court. This can represent a cost-effective way for a neighbor to handle a very noisy neighbor.
However, there are sometimes problems with this approach. One problem is that the local official who is assigned to measure noise will not be immediately available to measure the noise when the complaining neighbor requests help. The noise officer must be dispatched to plaintiff’s house. The officer has to start up the equipment and then take the measurement.
Often by the time this happens the noise has stopped. The barking dog problem is a good example. Many municipalities prohibit dog barking that is constant and repetitive. Obviously occasional dog barking shouldn’t be a problem and usually is not a violation. The problem is the dog that frequently loudly barks for a sustained period. Perhaps the dog usually barks for 10 minutes straight. Perhaps the complaining neighbor is routinely awoken, several times each night.
Often in these cases the complaining neighbor calls the police. This is usually not considered a high priority matter and it can take 20 to 25 minutes for the police to arrive, which is outside of the dog barking window. By the time the police respond, very often there is no dog to be heard at all. This scenario is likely to repeat itself to the point where the complaining neighbor gives up and is ready to list the house for sale.
Another common problem is that the certified enforcement official usually works a daytime shift. Many of these problems occur after hours and while some enforcement officers will respond after hours, that is not universally true.
If the problem cannot be handled in municipal court, and if it is prolonged and very severe sometimes there really are two options. The first option is that the victim can consider moving.
While moving will unquestionably resolve the problem, often people do not seem to find that to be a satisfying suggestion because they believe that they are the victim and that the victim isn’t the one that should have to move. Also a lot of people can’t afford to move. And also moving means that you have to leave your friends and family behind and a lot of people do not want to do that either.
If the problem is very severe, if local court is not an option, and if moving is not a satisfactory option, one can consider filing a lawsuit in the Superior Court. The thrust of the lawsuit is essentially that a neighbor is committing what is called a private nuisance. In other words, the neighbor is unreasonably interfering with the victim’s use and enjoyment of his or her property.
New Jersey has a noise law called the New Jersey Noise Control Act. This statute is found at N.J.S.A. 13:1G and it was first passed in 1972 and then re-adopted with modifications in 2007. While the law is not meant for private enforcement it does create decibel standards which, when exceeded, represent a violation. Our law firm feels that when possible and practical private noise lawsuits filed in the Superior Court should be supported by proof that decibel violations have occurred. In addition to verified noise readings, testimony from other witnesses, police reports, log books depicting time/date and duration of noise events are also important. Specific proof requirements depend on the noise problems at hand.
And, it helps if the party filing the complaint or the lawsuit is not the only neighbor complaining about the noise. The case is often, but not always, more viable when numerous neighbors complain about the noisy activity. When only one neighbor complains, then again the question becomes is this an actual complaint or is this a neighbor with unusual noise sensitivity. This does not mean that if a lawsuit is filed all of the neighbors must become plaintiffs. But it is helpful if other neighbors (assuming other neighbors are physically available) provide supporting testimony that backs up the assertions by the complaining neighbor.
One exception is when only one neighbor is impacted because for some reason the noise source particularly affects that complaining neighbor. For example house 1 has a juvenile with a drum set that is seemingly played 24/7 but only impacts and causes vibration in house 2 whose bedrooms face the juvenile’ s room, is the only other house on the block, and literally does vibrate from the noise when the drums are played. Another exception applies when the neighborhood homes are spaced far enough apart that logically only one neighbor could be impacted by loud noises. Obviously, these cases are all different and what applies in one case may not apply in another.
Court cases can take time and money. In noise matters they should only be filed when other options have failed. Nonetheless sometimes no option really exists other than filing suit. All lawsuits must be filed within a specified time period or the right to do so may be lost forever. Be sure to consult with a lawyer to determine what that filing deadline is in your particular case.
By: Stuart Lieberman, Esq. Mr. Lieberman is a shareholder at Lieberman Blecher and Sinkevich with offices in Princeton and New York. Mr. Lieberman has represent many clients in noise disturbance matters.
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