On April 12, 2022, the Montana Supreme Court its decision in the Rubin v. Hughes, 408 Mont. 219, 222 (2022). The decision is interesting in that it clarifies the application of “parasitic emotional distress damages” to property nuisance claims.
The case arose from an easement dispute between three neighbors. The history of the easement dispute is long and convoluted but can be distilled as follows. Through the purchase of a rural property, one neighbor attempted, but failed to secure an easement on the adjacent properties. With time, the neighbor with the presumed, but non-existent, easement interest in the other two properties engaged in increasingly hostile, bizarre, and harassing behavior with the two other neighbors (the “hostile neighbor”). This alleged behavior included stalking, flagging of the property lines, preventing the arrival of delivery drivers, and other harassing activity.
Eventually, the actions of the hostile neighbor became too much for the other two neighbors to tolerate. The two neighbors then sued the hostile neighbor seeking declaratory judgment as to their respective easements as well as a temporary restraining order and injunction against the hostile neighbor. The two neighbors additionally alleged that the hostile neighbor’s behavior constituted a nuisance, interfered with the use of their respective easement, and caused them mental distress. The case proceeded to verdict and the two neighbors prevailed and were awarded a total of $360,000. The hostile neighbor appealed. One of the bases serving as grounds for the appeal was whether the two neighbors were properly awarded “parasitic emotional distress damages” in the context of the property nuisance claim for relief.
The Montana Supreme Court’s decision provides an insightful discussion as to the history and context of when “parasitic emotional distress damages” may be awardable in the context of easement litigation.
The Montana Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that M.C.A. § 27-30-101(1), provides that a nuisance constitutes “[a]nything that is injurious to health, indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property[.]” “Thus, a nuisance action may be based upon conduct of a defendant that is either intentional, negligent, reckless, or ultrahazardous. “Nuisance includes all wrongs which have interfered with the rights of a citizen in the enjoyment of property[,]” and a nuisance action may give rise to injunctive relief and damages.
The Montana Supreme Court then went on to affirm the award of parasitic emotional distress damages in the context of a property nuisance claim. In this vein, the Montana Supreme Court built upon its previous decision in Sacco v. High Country Indep. Press, 896 P.2d 411, 417 (Mont. 1995). In that decision the Montana Supreme Court explained that:
Courts have allowed recovery for emotional distress but only in limited cases where the genuineness of the mental distress could be adequately determined, such as recovery for emotional distress damages upon proof of another cause of action and by plaintiffs who have suffered physical impact or a physical manifestation of the emotional distress claimed.
These exceptions to the general rule, however, have not proved to be the panacea anticipated. Damages for emotional distress with a host cause of action, known as “parasitic” damages, have been recovered even in cases where the independent action giving rise to emotional distress damages is trivial. Even in cases where the courts have required a physical injury or threat of physical injury in order to recover for emotional distress, plaintiffs have been allowed to recover where they have suffered only the slightest impact. Furthermore, even in jurisdictions which require that the plaintiff physically manifest the emotional impact, slight physical manifestations will suffice in establishing emotional distress. In many instances, the exceptions have swallowed the rule and the dangers of fraudulent claims, opening the floodgates of litigation and unlimited defendant liability have not been prevented by requiring that emotional distress be in the form of “parasitic” damages, or accompany physical injury or present physical manifestations of emotional distress.
As applied to the Rubin decision, the Montana Supreme Court observed that that the two Plaintiff neighbors testified that they suffered the “intimidat[ing] and annoy[ing]” effects of the hostile neighbor’s behavior. The Plaintiff neighbors described their property as a “dream” and testified that the hostile neighbors’ behavior ruined that dream and caused unrelenting anxiety.
Because the two neighbors’ testimony demonstrated a subjective relationship with their property on a “personal-identify level,” and because the two neighbors prevailed on their nuisance claims, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the award of “parasitic emotional distress damages.”
In closing, litigants in the context of a property easement dispute should be aware of the risks and advantages of asserting parasitic damages.
For additional information regarding Rubin v. Hughes, or about easement litigation in Montana generally, you can reach Jean Meyer by telephone at (406) 219-8422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.