Greater Westchester Homeowners Assn. v. City of Los Angeles

Decision Date14 December 1979
Citation26 Cal.3d 86,160 Cal.Rptr. 733,603 P.2d 1329
Parties, 603 P.2d 1329, 14 ERC 1074 GREATER WESTCHESTER HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES, Defendant and Appellant. L.A. 31105.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Burt Pines, City Atty., Lawrence M. Nagin, James H. Pearson, Asst. City Attys., and Kern & Wooley, Los Angeles, for defendant and appellant.

George Agnost, City Atty., Donald J. Garibaldi, David I. Kroopnick, San Francisco, Louis E. Goebel, Michael Scott Gatzke, Ruth R. Mijuskovic, Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, San Diego, Richard K. Simon and Kadison, Pfaelzer, Woodard, Quinn & Rossi, Los Angeles, as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and appellant.

Fadem, Berger & Norton and Michael M. Berger, Santa Monica, for plaintiffs and respondents.


Is a municipality which owns and operates an airport liable on a nuisance theory for personal injuries sustained by nearby residents and caused by noise from aircraft using the facility? We will conclude that it is. The resolution of this issue requires a careful weighing of two conflicting interests and policies. On the one hand, by ancient law, the owners and occupants of land are entitled to the peaceful use, possession, and enjoyment of their property. On the other, the general public has a strong interest in the transportation and related services furnished by commercial aviation. These two interests, the private and the public, are solidly founded in the common law and deeply rooted in established constitutional doctrine. When locked in confrontation, which interest prevails and under what circumstances?

We have looked at the problem before. (Loma Portal Civic Club v. American Airlines, Inc. (1964) 61 Cal.2d 582, 39 Cal.Rptr. 708, 394 P.2d 548.) We examine it again in reviewing a judgment entered in the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1976 following a 1975 trial wherein plaintiffs, multiple homeowners and their families living in the Westchester area adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), sought damages from the defendant, City of Los Angeles (City), which owns and operates LAX. The condition of nuisance giving rise to their claim of emotional and mental distress was the noise generated by the arrival and departure of jet aircraft at LAX, the nation's third largest commercial aviation facility.

In 1968 plaintiffs, as owners and occupants of homes situate near LAX's two north runways, sued the City in inverse condemnation for property damage and, on a nuisance theory, for personal injuries allegedly caused by noise, smoke, and vibrations emanating from aircraft using LAX. Plaintiffs' action was consolidated with other suits for direct condemnation which were brought by City against the owners of other nearby parcels of land. Trial of the direct condemnation and nuisance actions was bifurcated, and substantial direct and inverse condemnation judgments in favor of plaintiffs were entered and fully satisfied.

The nuisance phase of the case, tried before the court, resulted in findings of fact to the effect that the noise created by jet aircraft using the two north runways of LAX "interfered with person-to-person conversation in the home, . . . (with) normal telephonic communication, with the ability to enjoy the use of the out-of-doors' portion of their property and . . . to hear and enjoy television programs; that such noise caused frequent arousal from sleep and, in some cases, interfered with the ability . . . of school age members of the families to study in their homes." On the basis of the foregoing findings the trial court concluded that plaintiffs had established the existence of an actionable nuisance giving rise to damages for "annoyance, inconvenience, discomfort, mental distress, and emotional distress," and that a nuisance recovery was independent of plaintiffs' claim for diminution of their property values.

In the nuisance proceeding 41 plaintiffs were awarded damages in the aggregate sum of $86,000 for personal injuries sustained during the period 1967-1975. Thereafter, in a postjudgment order the trial court imposed prejudgment interest on all of the awards, both condemnation and nuisance, and also assessed $200,000 attorney's fees against City which appeals from both the nuisance judgments and the post judgment order.

Either by way of stipulation or from undisputed evidence, the following significant facts were established: The federal government exercises exclusive control over aircraft "in flight," defined as all movement of the plane from departure to arrival gates; LAX operates in a residential zone under a 1955 conditional use permit from City; City initially located the two north runways with full knowledge that the noise from their use would reach nearby established residences; the north runways were constructed with substantial federal financial assistance under grant agreements between City and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); and all commercial aircraft using LAX have federal airworthiness certificates which indicate compliance with federal noise emission standards.

City has consistently argued that plaintiffs' nuisance claim must fail for two reasons. First, the noise in question originates from flying aircraft over which the United States government exercises exclusive dominion and therefore any attempted noise control by an airport operator is federally preempted. Second, the operation of aircraft being expressly sanctioned by statutory law, any aircraft noise emissions cannot constitute a nuisance because of Civil Code section 3482, which provides: "Nothing which is done or maintained under the express authority of a statute can be deemed a nuisance." We review, and will reject, each of these contentions and will also consider several collateral questions raised by the trial court's postjudgment order.


Certain fundamental principles expressed by the United States Supreme Court guide our analysis of the preemption issue. When respective federal and state sovereignties are juxtaposed, "the proper approach is to reconcile 'the operation of both statutory schemes with one another rather than holding one completely ousted.' " (Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith v. Ware (1973) 414 U.S. 117, 127, 94 S.Ct. 383, 389-90, 38 L.Ed.2d 348.) The courts thereby attempt "the necessary accommodation between local needs and the overriding requirement of freedom for the national commerce . . . ." (Freeman v. Hewit (1946) 329 U.S. 249, 253, 67 S.Ct. 274, 277, 91 L.Ed. 265.)

The United States Supreme Court has described, generally, the scope of the preemption doctrine. It has said that federal regulation of an area of commerce may preempt state actions upon the same subject matter if (1) there is an apparent congressional intent to blanket the field, (2) the federal and state schemes directly conflict, or (3) any state intervention would burden or frustrate the full purposes and objectives of Congress. (Florida Avocado Growers v. Paul (1963) 373 U.S. 132, 141, 83 S.Ct. 1210, 10 L.Ed.2d 248; Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp. (1947) 331 U.S. 218, 230-231, 67 S.Ct. 1146, 91 L.Ed. 1447.) The controlling inquiry on the preemption issue is determining whether the state action stands "as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress." (Hines v. Davidowitz (1941) 312 U.S. 52, 57, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 404, 85 L.Ed. 581.)

The preemptive intent of Congress may be explicit or implicit, but where the effect of preemption is to impede the exercise of historic state powers the high court has held that the intent must be "clear and manifest." (Jones v. Rath Packing Co. (1977) 430 U.S. 519, 525, 97 S.Ct. 1305, 51 L.Ed.2d 604, quoting Rice, supra, 331 U.S. at p. 230, 67 S.Ct. 1146.) Furthermore, preemption exists only to the extent necessary to serve congressional objectives. (Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith v. Ware, supra, 414 U.S. at p. 127, 94 S.Ct. 383.) Additionally, it has long been recognized that state action may also be precluded where it unreasonably affects or discriminates against interstate commerce, or touches upon a field of commerce which requires uniform national regulation. (U.S.Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 3; A&P Tea Co. v. Cottrell (1976) 424 U.S. 366, 370-372, 96 S.Ct. 923, 47 L.Ed.2d 55; Freeman v. Hewit, supra, 329 U.S. 249, 252, 67 S.Ct. 274, 91 L.Ed. 265; Cooley v. Board of Wardens of Port of Philadelphia et al. (1852) 53 U.S. (12 How.) 299, 339, 13 L.Ed. 996.)

Consistent with the foregoing general principles and with specific application to aviation, we have previously acknowledged that commercial flights which are conducted in strict compliance with federal regulations may not be enjoined as nuisances, both because of the continuing public interest in air transportation, and because of the likelihood of direct conflict with federal law. (Loma Portal Civic Club v. American Airlines, Inc., supra, 61 Cal.2d 582, 591, 39 Cal.Rptr. 708, 714, 394 P.2d 548, 554.) In so holding, however, we expressly cautioned that our decision did not determine the "rights of landowners who suffer from airplane annoyances to seek damages from the owners or operators of aircraft Or to seek compensation from the owner or operator of an airport." (Ibid., italics added.) Preemption, we observed, did not operate Per se to preclude the enforcement of private state remedies for aircraft noise damage, and only a "compelling federal interest" would support a finding that Congress intended to nullify state-created rights. (Id., at p. 592, 39 Cal.Rptr. 708, 394 P.2d 548.)

Is there a "compelling federal interest" which precludes state imposition of nuisance liability upon the proprietor of an airport? If so, it will be revealed in current statutory and decisional law which we examine.

The Federal Aviation Act of 1958, as amended (Act) (49 U.S.C.A. § 1301 et seq.; all statutory references are to 49...

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