Recently, a San Francisco landlord who owns multiple properties was sued by the City Attorney’s office. What makes this case interesting is that City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the landlord under a public nuisance legal theory.
A nuisance is considered a public nuisance if it affects an entire community, neighborhood or a large number of people. A tenant suing under a public nuisance legal theory can recover damages for personal injury and property damage. However, a tenant must show that she suffered a special injury apart from that of the general public. If she cannot show that injury, then she has to sue under a private nuisance theory. This legal theory only allows for recovery for damage to her property interest. A tenancy is a property interest.
The lawsuit filed by Dennis Herrera alleged that the building was a public nuisance because it was used for “organized criminal gang activity.” The complaint detailed 12 incidents of criminal gang activity over a 12-month period, including drug dealing, obstruction of the sidewalk in front of the building and intimation of the tenants in the building who felt like “prisoners in their own home.” After the case was assigned a trial date, the landlord agreed to settle. He agreed to pay the City $135,000 in civil penalties and to sell the building.