Can your holiday decorations land you in court?

Real estate, Money

Your neighbors may have aesthetic objections to that giant blow-up Santa in your front yard, but can they sue you over it? What about a holiday display you’ve put on with a gazillion tiny twinkle lights that can be seen from space—is that grounds for a lawsuit? And what if your outdoor décor is at all hazardous to passersby?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Some people embrace Christmastime wholeheartedly, and that includes dressing up their home and yard with as many holiday decorations as possible. But one homeowner’s holiday cheer is another homeowner’s neighborhood eyesore. Asking nicely for some restraint and/or complaining loudly may not work. For the people who’d rather their neighbors not take over the block with their decorations, filing a lawsuit may be the last resort for combatting the fake snow machine and the speakers blasting out Jingle Bells.

Would-be Clark Griswolds take heart. “Mere aesthetics does not rise to the level of a nuisance,” says attorney Stuart Berg, a real estate partner with Kurzman Eisenberg Corbin & Lever, LLP in White Plains, NY. So just because someone’s idea of a happy holiday is not quite as boisterous as yours doesn’t mean there is a legitimate legal problem. But there is such a thing as a private nuisance where, for example, your Christmas lights shine directly into your neighbor’s backyard and interfere with the use or enjoyment of their property.

So when it comes to a giant snow globe in the front yard, “In order to obtain injunctive relief with respect to a private nuisance, the moving party would have to show an interference with their property rights that would be substantial and continuous,” says Berg.

The neighborhood nuisance

Nevertheless, “There are potentially endless forms of nuisance, ranging from bad odors to excessive noise,” says personal injury attorney David E. Christensen of Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. The side effects of excessive holiday décor can carry over into the realm of a public nuisance, where many homes and residents are affected. When this happens, you may have a problem.

“You are unlikely to be sued because your holiday lights are unattractive, but there may be aspects of your ‘Clark Griswold’ light display that could result in your being hauled into court,” says Christensen. “If your lights truly have millions of bulbs, the intensely bright display could create a danger for motorists. It is possible that the display is so distracting that drivers cannot help but turn to look at the display and end up rear-ending the car ahead of them. Or, the display may simply generate so much traffic in the neighborhood that neighbors cannot easily get in and out of their property.”

But such suits are no slam dunk, as the city of Plantation, Florida recently learned. The city sued residents Mark and Katherine Hyatt over their annual Christmas display, which includes more than 200,000 lights, a movie screen, snow, and even a Ferris wheel. The city claimed the display caused a traffic surge that would inevitably result in an accident. But in October 2016, Broward County Circuit Judge Marina Garcia-Wood ruled that the over-the-top display can shine on. The case had dragged on for two years and cost the city over $400,000.

Safeguard your premises, and protect yourself

While a suit based on traffic safety may not win in court, one based on injuries caused by hazards directly on your property can definitely land you on the losing side. If your outdoor decorations impact the safety of others, you could be facing some serious problems known as premises liability. It is your responsibility as a homeowner to make sure your holiday decorations are safe enough for display.

Could your mail carrier or a delivery person trip on an errant extension cord, fall, and suffer a head injury? These folks are not trespassing on your property—they are legally on the premises, and it’s your job to make sure the area is safe for them. You would be responsible for any injuries incurred, and the injured party would have the legal right to pursue damages.

The bottom line is this: If your decorations could possibly cause injury in any way, think twice before plugging in or lighting up. Keep walkways and pathways clear for pedestrians, visitors, and, yes, even trespassers. Because even if someone should not be on your property meandering amid your wonderland of Christmas lights, they may consider your enthusiastic display of holiday joy an open invitation. And that puts you at risk.