Airport noise: Mass filings of small claims lawsuits have won concessions in the past


A little history may help to explain why the county would bother to fight a $1,000 small claims judgment.

In 1981 a group of residents who lived near the San Francisco International Airport, located in San Mateo County but owned and operated by the city and county of San Francisco, filed more than 170 small claims lawsuits against San Francisco. According to the 1983 California Court of Appeal decision in the case, the small claims suits alleged "the noise from the airport constituted a continuing nuisance."

After the small claims court ruled in favor of 116 of the cases, San Francisco appealed.

In the meantime, the airport's neighbors filed another 183 claims. San Francisco then filed a suit against the small claims court, saying the cases shouldn't be heard in that court, where attorneys are not allowed. The city lost.

When San Francisco appealed that judgment, the 1st District Court of Appeal issued a March 29, 1983, decision firmly in favor of the neighbors.

"It is beyond dispute that a small claims court may hear an action in nuisance," the decision says. "It has recently been established that airport noise may give rise to a nuisance action."

The Court of Appeal decision also said that such claims could continue to be filed "until abatement takes place."

According to an article by Howard Beckman for the website, which says the article was updated in July 2016, San Francisco officials then tried to stop the continuing flurry of small claims lawsuits by having then speaker of the state Assembly Willie Brown insert a two-year moratorium on small claims actions against San Francisco International into an airport funding bill. The moratorium expired at the end of 1984.

The legislation was deemed unconstitutional by the state Legislature's counsel, however, because it affected only one airport, which in the legislation was defined as any "airport owned and operated by a county or city and county but physically located in another county or city." The legal opinion also said the legislation violated constitutional provisions that require "just compensation" when a government lessens the value of private property, Mr. Beckman wrote.

San Francisco ended up spending more than $800,000 defending itself from the small claims court nuisance claims. Eventually, in exchange for the residents promising not to file any more nuisance suits, San Francisco agreed to a number of measures to reduce airport noise, including banning Concorde jets from using the airport.


Related stories:

• Taking county to court over aircraft noise.

• Surf Air planes still overhead despite OK to fly Bay route.

• Atherton meeting set on San Carlos Airport noise issues.

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