Sty's the limit in nuisance claim

A Finely honed legal argument can at times be upstaged by the strangest things. Newcastle-upon Tyne solicitors AT Bryson & Co and Wilkinson Maughan, and counsel Ron Mitchell and Philip Walling will vouch for that after their most recent courtroom conflict.

They headed for Newcastle County Court to argue over the law of nuisance. Two sets of Newcastle neighbours were at loggerheads over dog barking, music and vibration. Had that been the sum total of the case, it might have made an entertaining story for the local paper but would have remained a straight forward and subdued legal affair.

However, this particular nuisance case was further complicated by the portly form of a Vietnamese Pot Bellied pig, or more specifically, its smell. And it was the presence of the exotic oriental porker in the action which catapulted an otherwise low-key claim into national headlines.

Walling said the argument in the case and the handling of it remained straightforward. But 'subdued' is not a word he would use to describe the response to the case which by the second day had caught the eye of the national Press and local papers.

The media reaction was, admitted Walling, who fought the corner of the pig and its owner, something none of the lawyers involved had anticipated.

Walling has had a hand in a number of nuisance actions, including one over a neighbour's fluff outfall from a tumble drier's outlet. "That was an amazing case," he recalled. "But it attracted nothing like the attention the pig got even though to my mind the involvement of the pig in the recent case was peripheral."

But Walling is sceptical that the media's gaze had any real affect on the handling of the case. "As far as the way the case was run I would not say it made any difference," he said.

"However, I think it is fair to say that by day two of the action, certainly, I was fully aware that some of the phrases I had used had been picked up and reported. While this made no difference to the way the case was run and the arguments I put, I think it's fair to say it made me give more thought while on my feet to the way I phrased what I was saying."

Walling's case ended up going against his client, who was ordered to pay £15,000 damages and subjected to an injunction which included an order that he should get rid of the pig. His client also faced a massive costs bill.

Unsuccessful attempts had been made to resolve the matter before it got to court. "Nuisance cases are far better and more cheaply settled out of court than with a fully contested hearing," said Walling.

But he believes this action does pose a serious question over the level of damages to be awarded in nuisance actions. And although the pig now has a new home, its antics could still find their way to the Court of Appeal in a challenge over the level of damages, a possibility now under consideration.

The £15,000 award, admittedly not all of which can be laid at the pig sty's door, seems high when compared to an Appeal Court decision in 1975. In that case damages were set at £2,000 following a complaint about the stench from not one but 700 pigs over a period of more than 12 years.

Walling believes that, even taking inflation into account, this makes the award against his client one which, to use the words of Lord Denning in a nuisance action, might prompt a bystander or a Court of Appeal judge to comment: "Good gracious – as high as that."