Christmas comedy classics…Elf, Bad Santa, and, of course, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. We’re only a week past Thanksgiving and I’ve already heard at least four references to the Griswold’s Christmas light extravaganza. Clark’s family was impressed when he finally got all 250 strands of lights to work:
But his neighbors definitely weren’t. Those lights were a nuisance to them and they aren’t the only ones who get angry with homeowners who go over the top with their holiday displays. In real life, some homeowners go to such extremes they put the Griswold house to shame, even incorporating musically-timed lights into their decorations:
These extravaganzas often attract large crowds, who may block neighbors’ driveways, cause excess noise, or cause traffic problems. As a result, there have been private nuisance suits filed and city governments who have attempted to take action because of the public nuisance caused. Even governments in the UK recognize that Christmas displays may cause a nuisance.
Nuisance suits are based on the idea that certain conditions or activities “unduly” interfere with either a public right or the use and enjoyment of private property. Nuisances are viewed as either public or private in nature. A public nuisance has to impact public rights, obviously – those rights that are common to all members of the public. A private nuisance, on the other hand, is a condition that harms or interferes with a private interest. Both the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Restatement (Second) of Torts define a private nuisance as “a nontrespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land.” Bostco LLC v. Milwaukee Metro. Sewerage Dist., 350 Wis.2d 554, 835 N.W.2d 160 (Wis. 2013).
Some private nuisance suits have been filed over Christmas lights, but these suits don’t seem to get too far, in large part because the issue is temporary (a few weeks a year). So if your neighbor has an over-the-top display, your best options are join in the fun (like one neighborhood in my old hometown) or have a good sense of humor about the whole thing. Of course, if they’re playing Gangnam Style every night, you may have a good claim!