Nottke et al v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company
Order: Defendant's motion to dismiss be, and the same hereby is, granted in part and denied in part as provided herein. The clerk of court shall forthwith set this case for a telephonic status/scheduling conference (Related Doc # 13 ). Judge James G. Carr on 9/6/17.(C,D)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
Michael Nottke, et al.,
Case No. 3:17CV544
Norfolk Southern Railway Co.,
This private-nuisance case arises from defendant Norfolk Southern Railway Company’s
operations at its Bellevue, Ohio, rail yard.
Plaintiffs Michael Nottke and Norman Jacobs own real property adjacent to the rail yard.
They allege that Norfolk Southern’s operations there create “extreme noise pollution” in the form
of continuous high-pitched squeals. According to plaintiffs, the noise pollution has diminished the
value of their property and caused them physical and emotional damage. They bring this suit under
Ohio law for qualified and absolute nuisance.
Jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). (Doc. 11 at ¶¶2–4).
Pending is Norfolk Southern’s motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss the absolutenuisance claim and part of the qualified-nuisance claim. (Doc. 14). For the following reasons, I grant
the motion in part and deny it in part.
Norfolk Southern operates a classification yard in Bellevue where “trains are broken up and
formed into new ones.” (Doc. 16 at 7). To facilitate that process, Norfolk Southern employs a “hump
classification system” in which an engine pushes train cars over a hump, the cars roll down the
opposite side of the hump, and the cars form new trains. (Id.; Doc. 11 at ¶¶8–9).
As the cars roll down the hump, large braking systems called retarders decelerate the cars.
These retarders, the plaintiffs allege, produce “a very loud, unbearable high-pitched squealing
sound” when their metal brake shoes rub against the train cars’ steel wheels. (Doc. 11 at ¶10).
Plaintiffs can hear these sounds “every time a car passes through a retarder and the retarder
activates,” which “happen[s] hundreds and thousands of times a day at the Bellevue Yard.” (Id.)
According to the plaintiffs’ acoustical testing, “[s]queals as loud as 100 [decibels] are
routinely observed on neighboring residential properties.” (Id. at ¶¶13, 17).
That noise level exceeds a federal regulation that says “no carrier subject to this regulation
shall operate retarders that exceed an adjusted average maximum A-weighted sound level of 83 dB
at any receiving property measurement location[.]” 40 C.F.R. § 201.14.
After Norfolk Southern started using the retarders, in 2015, neighboring landowners and at
least one of Ohio’s United States Senators pressed the company to abate the noise pollution.
(Doc. 11 at ¶15). One option that these stakeholders proposed was the installation of noisedampening pads, which were available for about $400,000. (Id. at ¶17). Norfolk Southern declined
to take that or any other measure to reduce the noise emanating from the retarders. (Id. at ¶¶17, 30,
In March, 2017, plaintiffs brought this suit on behalf of themselves and a proposed class of
all individuals who have, since January 1, 2015, owned or occupied real property within 7,000 feet
of the Bellevue Yard.
In Count I, they allege that Norfolk Southern created a qualified nuisance by operating
retarders “that exceed the [83-decibel] federal standard of care.” (Id. at ¶¶58–60). Plaintiffs allege
that the retarders’ emission of noises at or below the 83–decibel ceiling also constitutes a qualified
nuisance. (Id. at ¶60). In Count II, plaintiffs allege that the railroad created an absolute nuisance by
“intentionally and unreasonably subject[ing] Plaintiffs and their neighbors to extreme noise
exposures” by operating the retarders. (Id. at ¶69).
Standard of Review
A complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is
entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).
To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint “must contain sufficient
factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556
U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that
allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
A. Absolute Nuisance
Norfolk Southern argues that plaintiffs have not pleaded a plausible absolute-nuisance claim
for two reasons.
The railroad first argues that “[t]he foundational element for an absolute nuisance claim is
that ‘no matter how [careful one is], such activities are inherently injurious and cannot be conducted
without damaging [someone else’s property or rights].’” (Doc. 14 at 7) (quoting Brown v. Scioto
Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 87 Ohio App. 3d 704, 713 (1993). Because the plaintiffs have alleged that
it is possible for Norfolk Southern to abate the noise pollution (by means of the noise-dampening
pads), the railroad asserts that its operations at the Bellevue Yard cannot be an absolute nuisance.
(Doc. 14 at 7).
Second, Norfolk Southern maintains that an absolute-nuisance claim requires “some
affirmative act on the part of a defendant.” Kaczor v. City of Bellaire, 1998 WL 404189, *6 (Ohio
App.). But here, the railroad contends, the plaintiffs have alleged only an omission – that is, failing
to install noise-dampening pads or otherwise remediate the noise pollution. (Doc. 14 at 8–9).
1. Legal Framework
Ohio law divides private-nuisance claims into two categories – absolute nuisances and
qualified nuisances – and “[t]he distinction between absolute and qualified nuisance depends on the
conduct of the defendant.” Scott v. Nameth, 2015-Ohio-1104, ¶12 (Ohio App.).
“An absolute nuisance, or nuisance per se, is based on intentional conduct or an abnormally
dangerous condition that cannot be maintained without injury to property, no matter what
precautions are taken.” Szuch v. FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., 2016-Ohio-620, ¶50
(Ohio App.). “A qualified nuisance, on the other hand, is a lawful act so negligently or carelessly
done as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm, which in due course results in injury to
As the Court of Appeals explained in Gevelaar v. Millenium Inorganic Chems., 2013-Ohio435, ¶18 (Ohio App.), an absolute nuisance “consists of [1.] an intentional act resulting in harm; [2.]
an act involving . . . unlawful conduct causing unintentional harm; or  a non-culpable act resulting
in accidental harm, for which, because of the hazards involved, absolute liability attaches
notwithstanding the absence of fault.” (Internal brackets in original); see also Paulus v. Citicorp. N.
Am., Inc., 2013 WL 5487053, *4 (S.D. Ohio) (“Ohio law allows plaintiffs to base an absolute
nuisance claim on ‘intentional conduct’”) (quoting State ex rel. R.T.G. v. State, 98 Ohio St. 3d 1, 13
2. Plaintiffs Have Alleged a Plausible Claim
Based on the Intentional Operation of the Retarders
As the foregoing case law makes clear, Norfolk Southern’s first argument has no merit.
One way of pleading an absolute-nuisance claim is to allege that, no matter the precautions
that the defendant might take, the defendant’s activities are so hazardous or dangerous that it is
impossible to conduct them without damaging another’s property rights. Brown, supra, 87 Ohio App.
3d at 713.
But that is merely one way, rather than the only way, of pleading an absolute-nuisance claim.
Here, the plaintiffs contend that Norfolk Southern created an absolute nuisance by
intentionally operating retarders that generate high-pitched squeals that interfere with their use of
their property and inflict physical and emotional harm. (Doc. 11 at ¶¶66–71). This type of
“intentional” absolute-nuisance claim has a strong foundation in Ohio law.
“[A]n absolute nuisance requires intentional conduct[.]” Angerman v. Burick, 2003-Ohio1469, ¶10 (Ohio App.). “Intentional, in this context, means not that a wrong or the existence of a
nuisance was intended but that the creator of it intended to bring about the conditions which are in
fact found to be a nuisance.” Id.
Following that rule, the Ohio courts have recognized absolute nuisances where a defendant
has “intentionally built and operated [a] motorcross track, which created a great deal of noise,”
Angerman, supra, 2003-Ohio-1469, at ¶11; where a defendant’s “activity of manufacturing and the
manner in which that process is conducted generates a humming noise and loud steam blasts,”
Gevelaar, supra, 2013-Ohio-435, at ¶24; and where a defendant “intentionally carried out [a]
construction project adjacent to the [plaintiffs’] property” that resulted in “an increase in the noise
level” on the property, Amore v. Ohio Turnpike Comm’n, 194 Ohio App. 3d 182, 189 (2011).
Likewise, in the Paulus case, supra, 2013 WL 5487053, at *4, Judge Sargus held that the
plaintiffs stated a plausible absolute-nuisance claim by alleging that the defendant “proceeded
intentionally with its generator testing schedule, with the knowledge that it has harmed the Pauluses’
quality of life, enjoyment of their land, sleep patterns, and work performance.”
That was the correct result, Judge Sargus explained, because “Ohio law allows plaintiffs to
base an absolute nuisance claim on intentional conduct.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
Norfolk Southern says I ought to write off cases like Angerman and Amore as aberrations in
Ohio law owing to the Ninth District Court of Appeals’ supposed “outlier” approach to absolutenuisance claims, but that contention is unpersuasive for two reasons.
It is not just the Ninth District that holds that a defendant’s intentional conduct supports an
absolute-nuisance claim. The Eleventh District, finding, as I do, cases like Angerman and Amore to
be persuasive, followed its approach in Gevelaar, supra, 2013-Ohio-435, at ¶¶20–24. Judge Sargus
also recognized, in Paulus, that intentional conduct that necessarily interferes with another’s
enjoyment of his or her property rights supports an absolute-nuisance claim.
Furthermore, the court in Angerman, 2003-Ohio-1469, at ¶¶12–13, persuasively explained
why it is that intentional conduct, standing alone, supports an absolute-nuisance claim:
Early Supreme Court cases explained the distinction between absolute and qualified
nuisance in basic terms, convincing this court that this situation involves an absolute
nuisance rather than a qualified one. A qualified nuisance requires proof of
negligence because, otherwise, there is no nuisance. Taylor v. Cincinnati (1944), 143
Ohio St. 426, 55 N.E.2d 724, upon which the trial court and both parties rely, quoted
extensively from Judge Cardozo in the leading case of McFarlane v. City of Niagara
Falls, 247 N.Y. 340, 160 N.E. 391, to set forth several situations in which a qualified
nuisance arises. Most examples involved negligent maintenance of roads, buildings,
trees, electrical wires, boilers, oil tanks, etc. See Taylor at 441–444, 55 N.E.2d 724.
Properly maintained, these roads, buildings, trees, electrical wires, and oil tanks did
not constitute nuisances for they did not cause injury to anyone. See id.
Consequently, to establish a nuisance in these situations, a plaintiff must prove
negligence by those who have a duty to maintain the areas.
Absolute nuisance, on the other hand, does not require proof of negligence. Where
the harm and resulting damage are the necessary consequences of just what the
defendant is doing, or is incident to the activity itself or the manner in which it is
conducted, the law of negligence has no application and the rule of absolute liability
applies. Id. at 432, 55 N.E.2d 724. The primary meaning [of nuisance] does not
involve the element of negligence as one of its essential factors. * * * One who emits
noxious fumes or gases day by day in the running of his factory may be liable to his
neighbor though he has taken all available precautions. Id. at 441–442, 55 N.E.2d
724, quoting McFarlane, supra.
Here, plaintiffs have stated a facially plausible claim for absolute nuisance by alleging that
the harms they experience – diminished property values, physical harm, and emotional injuries – are
the necessary consequence of Norfolk Southern’s intentional operation of the retarder system.
Accordingly, I reject defendant’s first argument for dismissal.
3. Plaintiffs Have Alleged an Affirmative Act
For similar reasons, I reject Norfolk Southern’s argument that plaintiffs have not alleged an
affirmative act, as Ohio law requires. See Kaczor, 1998 WL 404189, at *6. Plaintiffs contend that
it is Norfolk Southern’s intentional operation of the retarders that caused the nuisance (Doc. 11 at
¶¶67, 69–70), and such an allegation satisfies the intentional-act requirement.
Norfolk Southern next argues that I should dismiss that portion of the qualified-nuisance
claim based on the retarders’ emission of noises at or below 83 dB.
The railroad contends that federal law – specifically, 40 C.F.R. § 201.14 – permits it to
operate retarders as long as noise levels do not exceed “an adjusted average maximum A–weighted
sound level of 83 dB[.]” (Doc. 14 at 9). Norfolk Southern further observes that the Noise Control
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4916(c)(1), prohibits the enforcement of “any standard applicable to noise
emissions resulting from the operation of the same equipment or facility of such carrier unless such
is identical to a standard applicable to noise emissions resulting from such operations prescribed by
any regulation under this section.”
Taken together, the railroad argues, these provisions preempt plaintiffs’ claim that Norfolk
Southern’s emission of noise levels at or below 83 decibels creates a qualified nuisance.
Plaintiffs do not dispute the preemptive effect of these provisions of federal law. (Doc. 16
at 14–15). Rather, they assert that applying the Noise Control Act’s preemption rule to their nuisance
claim “amounts to an unconstitutional taking of private property for private use, in violation of the
Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment.” (Id. at 14) (emphasis supplied). According to plaintiffs,
the 83–decibel ceiling “authorize[s] a permanent physical invasion by the defendant under the
meaning of Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp., 458 U.S. 419 (1982). (Id.).
Assuming that the takings claim is properly before me (despite plaintiffs’ failure to plead
such a claim in their amended complaint), and even assuming that there are no other deficiencies in
the putative “permanent physical invasion” takings claim – something about which I am rather
doubtful – the claim fails because any such taking was for a public use.
The Fifth Amendment permits the federal government to “transfer property from one private
party to another if future ‘use by the public’ is the purpose of the taking.” Kelo v. City of New
London, Conn., 545 U.S. 469, 477 (2005). The government may not, however, take “private property
for strictly private uses, regardless of whether just compensation is paid.” Montgomery v. Carter
Cnty., Tenn., 226 F.3d 758, 765 (6th Cir. 2000).
“[A]ll that is required for the taking to be considered for public use is some rational
relationship to some ‘conceivable public purpose.’” Id. (quoting Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff,
467 U.S. 229, 241 (1984). “Very few takings will fail to satisfy that standard. As a result, the
examples [of private takings] tend to be highly implausible hypotheticals.” Id. at 766.
Here, the alleged taking – permitting Norfolk Southern’s retarders to generate noise that does
not exceed 83 decibels – bears “some rational relationship to some ‘conceivable public purpose.”
Id. at 765. The regulation serves a public purpose by facilitating Norfolk Southern’s rail operations
– as well as the operations of all railroads that deploy retarders. Absent a uniform and nationally
applicable decibel ceiling, Norfolk Southern and other railroads would inevitably be subject to a
patchwork of conflicting regulations in the many states in which they operate. Eliminating such
conflicting regulations serves the public interest in efficient rail operations and the free flow of
commerce across state boundaries.
Plaintiffs respond that the 83–decibel ceiling is so insufficiently protective of adjacent
landowners’ health and well-being that it amounts to “little more than a giveaway to rail carriers
which utilize active retarders.” (Doc. 16 at 22). But that is an argument that federal regulators struck
the wrong balance between landowner and rail interests, and plaintiffs have not shown that the
resulting compromise was so fanciful and one-sided as to lack any conceivable relationship to the
Accordingly, I reject plaintiffs’ private-takings argument and hold that federal law preempts
that part of their qualified-nuisance claim based on noise levels at or below 83 decibels.
Finally, Norfolk Southern argues that, because the plaintiffs have alleged a continuing
nuisance, they may not recover damages for the loss of value of their fee estates. (Doc. 14 at 10–11).
Beyond the classification of nuisances as either absolute or qualified, Ohio law also
recognizes that a nuisance may be continuing or permanent.
A continuing nuisance occurs when the defendant’s “tortious activity is ongoing, perpetually
creating fresh violations of the plaintiff’s property rights. The damage caused by each fresh violation
is an additional cause of action.” Weir v. E. Ohio Gas Co., 2003-Ohio-1229, ¶18 (2003). A
permanent nuisance, in contrast, occurs when the defendant’s “tortious act has been fully completed
but injury to the plaintiff’s estate from that act persists in the absence of further conduct by the
The classification of the nuisance as continuing or permanent defines the measure of
If the nuisance is continuing, then the “proper measure of damages is the ‘impairment of the
value of the use of the property and not the decrease in the value of the fee.’” Orsuto v. Franks
Transport, Inc., 1983 WL 6962, *2 (Ohio App.) (quoting Frey v. Queen City Paper Co., 79 Ohio
App. 64 (1946)). If the nuisance is permanent, then plaintiff may recover damages for lost property
Construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the complaint alleges a claim for a
Plaintiffs allege that Norfolk Southern is engaged in ongoing tortious activity – namely, the
continuous and daily operation of the retarders. (Doc. 11 at ¶11) (“The squeals can be heard from
neighboring properties, including those owned by the Named Plaintiffs, 24 hours a day, nearly every
day of the year.”); (id. at ¶60) (“Plaintiffs are seeking damages for the nuisance that Defendant[ ] has
and continues to create”). Nowhere do plaintiffs allege that Norfolk Southern has ceased those
activities giving rise to their nuisance claim.
Plaintiffs respond that their nuisance claim is, essentially, a hybrid claim that comprises
elements of a permanent-nuisance claim and a continuing-nuisance claim. (Doc. 16 at 25–27).
Essentially conceding that the tortious activity is ongoing (and thus that the nuisance is
continuing), plaintiffs emphasize the supposed “economic permanence” of Norfolk Southern’s use
of retarders. (Id. at 26). Plaintiffs contend that, given the $160 million investment in the Bellevue
Yard that brought about the retarders, they have every reason to expect that Norfolk Southern “will
not deviate from its course of conduct,” such that the nuisance is permanent. (Id.).
This argument lacks any basis in Ohio law.
As plaintiffs acknowledge, “‘[t]he defendant’s ongoing conduct or retention of control is the
key to distinguishing” a continuing nuisance from a permanent nuisance. (Id. at 25) (quoting Sexton
v. City of Mason, 117 Ohio St. 3d 275, 282 (2008)). But the object of the nuisance here is not the
railroad’s financial investment in the Bellevue Yard; it is its operation of noise-generating retarders.
Because the continued operation of those retarders is, according to the complaint, clearly in Norfolk
Southern’s control, the plaintiffs’ claim is one for continuing nuisance, and damages for propertyvalue diminution are not available.
It is, therefore,
Defendant’s motion to dismiss be, and the same hereby is, granted in part and denied
in part as provided herein; and
The clerk of court shall forthwith set this case for a telephonic status/scheduling
/s/ James G. Carr
Sr. U.S. District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?