The Perils and Promise of Public Nuisance
100 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2022 Last revised: 29 Oct 2022
Date Written: June 7, 2022
Public nuisance has lived many lives. A centuries-old doctrine defined as “an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public,” it is currently the backbone of thousands of opioid and climate-change suits across the United States. It was a major force behind the landmark 1998 tobacco settlements and has figured in litigation over issues as diverse as gun sales, lead contamination, water pollution, Confederate monuments, and Covid safety standards. Although this common-law oddity has shaped the face of modern tort law, it is unfamiliar to the public and usually ignored even in law schools. When it is discussed, it often provokes anxiety—about whether it is a tort at all and whether, whatever it is, it might swallow tort law, the regulatory state, and separation of powers as we know it.
This article utilizes the opioid litigation to explore the three most common sets of objections to public nuisance: (1) traditionalist, (2) formalist, and (3) institutional. Public nuisance can seem unusual, even outlandish. At worst, it is a potentially capacious mechanism allowing executive branch actors to employ the judicial process to address legislative and regulatory problems. Nevertheless, its perils are easily overstated and its promise overlooked. I argue that, historically, public nuisance has long addressed problems such as harmful products; doctrinally, it accords better with tort law than commonly recognized; and institutionally, it functions as a response to non-ideal conditions.
Drawing on long-standing tort principles of duties generated by risk creation, I propose a conception of public nuisance that highlights its coherence with familiar aspects of tort and its consistency across past and present. Public nuisance is an object lesson in the common law’s balance of stability and evolution, across time and within varying regulatory contexts.
Keywords: Torts, Public Nuisance, Public Law, Regulation, Class Actions, Legal Theory, Private Law Theory, Administrative Law, Food & Drug Law, Opioids, Climate Change, Public Health, Environmental Law
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