High Court Upholds Airport Noise Suits

Times Staff Writer

In a broad ruling that could affect all major California airports, the state Supreme Court opened the way on Monday for residents to sue airports over jet noise and similar nuisances and for related losses in property values.

The court ruled in a case involving Burbank Airport, which was sued by residents who claim that noise, exhaust and vibrations from jet landings and takeoffs has resulted in a loss of value of their homes and is an ongoing nuisance. In all, 138 people are seeking nearly $14 million from the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority.

In an opinion by Justice Cruz Reynoso, the high court overturned a trial court judge who had thrown out the suit. In so doing, the court paved the way for residents to file similar suits--repeatedly if necessary--accusing other airports of creating nuisances, lawyers involved in the Burbank case said.

“The significance of the ruling is that anybody who lives around an airport can sue at any time,” said John J. Schimmenti, who represented residents near the airport.


‘Applicable to LAX’

“It has far broader application than just Burbank. It would be applicable to LAX (Los Angeles International). It would be applicable to every airport in the state.”

The ruling may affect more than just airports. The case drew the attention of such state agencies as the Coastal Commission, which fears that a loss by Burbank Airport could open agencies for suits by property owners claiming diminished property values.

The case has stirred the most intense interest, however, among airports around the state and among citizen groups that have long complained about airport noise.

An Orange County group and the City of Newport Beach filed briefs urging the court to rule in the residents’ favor, thus aiding efforts to quiet the noise at John Wayne Airport.

In Los Angeles, half a dozen lawsuits involving 800 pieces of property near Los Angeles International Airport have been on hold pending the outcome of the Burbank case.

An assistant city attorney for Los Angeles International Airport, James Spitzer, said airport attorneys have not read the decision, but “the impression we got is that . . . it is bad news.”

Spitzer said it is difficult to measure the effect of the Burbank decision on the 15 to 20 noise-related lawsuits pending against Los Angeles International and Ontario International airports.

“Who knows what kind of qualifiers they might have in it?” he asked. “But there would be some impact, I’m sure. . . . We’ll have to assess on a case-by-case basis.”

Los Angeles already has paid $29 million to residents around Los Angeles International, and complaints totaling $59 million are pending.

At Ontario, where noise is not considered a major problem, lawsuits total about $10 million, and $200 million in claims, which must be submitted before actual suits are filed, are pending.

The San Francisco city attorney’s office urged the court to rule for Burbank. Residents near San Francisco International Airport have filed more than 600 small-claims lawsuits since 1981, accusing the airport of nuisance because of jet noise. A homeowners’ group has vowed to “nuisance the airport to death.”

The court’s opinion dealt with two issues:

The court unanimously concluded that residents could sue the airport authority for “inverse condemnation” by claiming that the airport, which opened in 1978, caused their property values to drop.

Inverse condemnation describes a property owner’s suit accusing a government agency of taking property or diminishing its value without paying. Such suits often involve government actions that inadvertently damage private property.

In the past, the law held that an agency could not be sued for inverse condemnation unless it had the power to condemn property in eminent domain proceedings in the first place, the airport had argued. The state law that set up the airport authority did not give it eminent domain powers.

The court called this position a “mechanical view” and said agencies can be sued for inverse condemnation even if they lack power to take property in eminent domain proceedings.

That holding could affect other government agencies that lack the power to condemn property. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the state attorney general said the Coastal Commission is one agency that lacks eminent domain power but takes actions that diminish private property values. Under the ruling Monday, the commission may be liable for costly inverse condemnation suits.

On the second issue, the court concluded by a 5-2 margin that airport noise, jet exhaust and vibrations are a continuing nuisance, so residents can sue because of the nuisance at any time.

The airport had argued that residents had only one opportunity to sue for nuisance--when the airport went into operation--and that they had lost their chance. Such a one-time suit would have precluded future nuisance suits.

The court sided with the residents, who argued that because the airport is a continuing problem, they can sue whenever they believe that the airport is posing a particular nuisance.

‘Quintessential . . . Nuisance’

“The classic example of a continuing nuisance is an ongoing or repeated disturbance, such as the one before us today, caused by noise vibration or foul odor,” Reynoso wrote. “Airport operations are the quintessential continuing nuisance.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stanley Mosk, joined by Malcolm Lucas, said such suits cannot be filed, in part because airlines and airports are regulated by federal law.

Mosk said a traditional definition of a so-called continuing nuisance is one that can be ordered stopped by a judge. He pointed out that a state judge cannot order an airport to cease operations because federal aviation law preempts any state law that could be invoked to regulate airports.

Burbank Airport spokesman Victor J. Gill called the ruling a disappointment. He said the airport has “acknowledged (a) noise problem” although it has made “a lot of progress.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling sends the case (Kenneth L. Baker et. al. v. Burbank Airport Authority L.A. 31869) back to Superior Court for trial. Gill said airport lawyers believe that suits by residents over noise are “winnable” but noted, “The point is that you have to go through a lengthy and painstaking trial process.”

Legislative attempts to limit airport liability have failed. Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill on the issue this session.

Times staff writers Roxane Arnold in Los Angeles and Kim Murphy in Orange County contributed to this story.