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Maryland Court of Special Appeals holds that a drive-in movie theater failed to present legally sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict in a nuisance action

Blue Ink, Ltd. v. Two Farms, Inc. d/b/a Royal Farms, Inc.
No. 01487 (Md. App. July 30, 2014)

by Wayne C. Heavener, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2014/1487s12.pdf

In Blue Ink, Ltd. v. Two Farms, Inc. d/b/a Royal Farms, Inc., Maryland’s intermediate appellate court held that a driver-in movie theater failed to adduce legally sufficient evidence at trial to support a jury verdict against a gas station in a private nuisance action. Writing for the Court of Special Appeals, Judge Andrea M. Leahy held that ambient light from the gas station was not an objectively reasonable interference with the drive-in’s property rights so as to constitute a private nuisance because the drive-in was uniquely sensitive to light. Therefore, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s grant of judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the gas station.

This case arose from a dispute between Blue Ink, Ltd. (“Plaintiff”), which operated a drive-in movie theater in Baltimore County, and Two Farms, Inc. (“Defendant”), which does business as the convenience store chain Royal Farms, Inc. Plaintiff operated Bengies Drive-In Movie Theater in Middle River, Maryland, which has existed in that location since the 1950s. In 2003, Defendant erected a location on the opposite side of the road from Plaintiff that included a convenience store, gas pumps, and a car wash. Plaintiff filed an official complaint regarding the disruptive nature of Plaintiff’s lights with the Baltimore County of Code Enforcement (the “Department”). After the Department refused to issue Defendant a citation, Plaintiff sought a Writ of Mandamus, which was denied. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, and proceeded to trial on claims of negligence and private nuisance.

At trial, Plaintiff’s owner, D. Edward Vogel, testified that Defendant’s lights prevented him from building another movie screen on his premises. Mr. Vogel also testified that drive-in movie theaters are uniquely dependent upon darkness to conduct business, and, therefore, uniquely sensitive to light. In rebuttal, Defendant adduced testimony that its lights were not directly pointed at Plaintiff’s location, and that the alleged site of Plaintiff’s planned second screen was prohibited by a restrictive covenant that Plaintiff had entered into with a local community group. Furthermore, Defendant pointed out at trial that Plaintiff’s customers had not complained about Defendants’ lights. At the close of evidence, the trial court granted Defendants’ Motion for Judgment as to Plaintiff’s negligence claims, and submitted Plaintiff’s private nuisance claims to the jury. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff for $838,000.00, Defendant filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV), which the trial court granted. Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s grant of JNOV to the Court of Special Appeals.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, and held that Plaintiff did not present legally sufficient evidence at trial to support the jury’s verdict. The Court held that, in order to prevail on a nuisance claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant’s interference with the plaintiff’s property rights is unreasonable and substantial, and that the harm alleged is an “objectively reasonable” inconvenience to the plaintiff’s property rights. The Court drew the distinction between actions for nuisance per se and nuisance “in fact,” this case being an instance of the latter because the alleged intrusion is a nuisance by circumstance, rather than a nuisance irrespective of location or surroundings. Looking to the facts of this case, the Court held that Plaintiff failed to present any evidence that Defendants’ use of its lights was unreasonable, given that none of Defendants’ lights were aimed at Plaintiff, and that the parties were already located on a heavily-traveled commercial zone.

Furthermore, the Court held that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the Plaintiff’s alleged inconvenience was objectively reasonable. The Court pointed to its recent decision in Schuman v. Greenbelt Homes, Inc., 212 Md. App. 451 (2013), in which the Court held that plaintiff could not maintain an action for nuisance against her neighbor for smoking cigarettes simply because the plaintiff was particularly sensitive to the smell of smoke. The Court extended its logic in Schuman to this case, finding that Plaintiff’s unique sensitivity to light did not mean that Defendant’s use of its lights constituted an objectively reasonable inconvenience of Plaintiff’s property rights.


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