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Why St Helen’s Smelting Co v Tipping is important

In St Helen’s Smelting Co v Tipping, the House of Lords distinguished between a nuisance which causes damage to property and that which interferes with the claimant’s use and enjoyment of their land. The test for whether the defendant’s actions constitute nuisance will alter depending on the type of interference alleged. For damage to property, the case suggests the claimant only needs to show the defendant actually caused damage.

Facts

The claimant had recently purchased a property with over a thousand acres of land. The defendants owned a copper smelting business close to the claimant’s land. The copper factory discharged harmful gases that caused damages to the claimant’s trees and crops. There were various similar businesses and factories in that locality.

Claim

The claimant sued for damages under the tort of nuisance. The defendant argued that this could not constitute a nuisance because there were many similar businesses in that locality and the gases released were normal for the copper business. Furthermore, they highlighted that they had been operating long before the claimant purchased the land.

Issue

Whether the defendants had committed a nuisance in damaging the claimant’s trees. In particular, the Hosue had to decide whether the ‘character of the locality’ meant this did not constitute a nuisance.

Held

The House of Lords held the defendant liable and awarded damages to the claimant.

Reasoning

The court held the defendant liable even though the character of the locality was similar to the defendant and the industry had been operating before the claimant purchased the property.

The House of Lords said it was important to differentiate a nuisance that causes harm to property and that which interferes with the owner’s enjoyment of the property. Different circumstances will be taken into account depending on the type of nuisance alleged. In the words of Lord Westbury:

it appears to me that it is a very desirable thing to mark the difference between an, action brought for a nuisance upon the ground that the alleged nuisance produces material injury to the property, and an action brought for a nuisance on the ground that the thing alleged to be a nuisance is productive of sensible personal discomfort.

The House accepted that the character of the locality is relevant for the interference with the enjoyment of land. However, in cases of ‘material injury to property’, there was no place for the locality rule to operate, since no location could be regarded as ‘convenient’ for an activity having such effects. It seems that the claimant therefore only needs to show that the defendant’s actions caused damage to their property to satisfy a nuisance claim.

Therefore, St Helen’s Smelting Co suggests that the ‘unreasonable interference’ test is applicable only to amenity nuisances.

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