It’s so easy to criticize city government for allowing the favored few to take advantage of public goods. And it’s difficult for a city to justify putting a damper on economic activity, even when the activity seems to consume public resources. But the City of Greenwood, Missouri, on the southeast side of Kansas City, did just that, with a jury of citizens deciding that a busy quarry’s truck traffic was a public nuisance.
In City of Greenwood v. Martin Marietta dated August 11, 2009, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri upheld a jury’s determinations (1) that heavy truck traffic from a quarry outside the city constituted a “public nuisance,” justifying the award to the city of damages, including punitive damages, and (2) that Martin Marietta Materials, Inc., and its partner were negligent in making street repairs. The Court of Appeals also approved the trial judge’s ruling on the legality of the city’s ordinance excluding commercial traffic.
From the map, the quarry is apparent on the southeast side of Greenwood, as is Greenwood’s Main Street, which is also State Highway 150. The Court of Appeals noted that the trucks hauling to and from the quarry preferred to travel north up Second Street, rather than to get to Highway 150 via State Highway 291; the alternate route would have been a little further and probably would have offended the citizens of Lake Winnebago, rather the citizens of Greenwood.
The facts of the case are uncomplicated: heavy truck traffic through narrow residential streets created noise and dust and interfered with the residential use of the streets. What is interesting is that the City of Greenwood asserted itself on behalf of its residents under the theory of public nuisance.
Jury finds public nuisance
Private nuisance, as discussed in other posts on this blog, has to do with damage to the enjoyment of private property caused by the use of nearby property. Public nuisance, according to precedents cited by the Court of Appeals, “may be found where the unreasonable use obstructs the rights or property of the whole community, or neighborhood, or of any considerable number of persons.” It was for the jury to determine whether the offending use was “so extensive and of such duration as to constitute a substantial interference” with residents and business owners who own property near the road.
Repairs were negligently made
On the claim that the defendants negligently repaired the road, the jury heard evidence from which it could conclude that the damages and repairs “substantially interfered with public safety.” Testimony that Martin Marietta made the repairs after complaints from the truck drivers about the condition of the street probably helped the City’s case.
The City’s power to restrict commercial traffic is nearly unlimited
The defendants also argued that the City did not have the power to adopt an ordinance restricting commercial traffic to “commercial use routes” ; because the City did not designate any streets as commercial use routes, the ordinance completely excluded heavy truck traffic from the City. The Court of Appeals ruled that the City did not deny quarry traffic access to the state highway system, but was using its statutory right to control traffic, under Missouri statute 304.120.(4), which allows cities to restrict certain routes to passenger vehicles only.
When are juries valuable?
The determinations of juries have been respected in the United States and England for centuries. Juries can establish community standards for obscenity, determine whether a criminal defendant is guilty, and sort out the credibility of witnesses, even witnesses whose testimony is incredibly technical.
Judges and courts of appeal rarely interfere with what a jury has determined because of this tradition of deference embodied in statutory and common law. But courts of appeals occasionally reduce or overturn a jury verdict.
Juries, like individuals, get carried away. We hope that individuals on juries moderate one another. We have faith that this happens, but we know that the wisdom of juries is sometimes lacking.
Would we want a single judge to determine whether the use of streets in Greenwood by quarry traffic was unreasonably detrimental to the citizens of Greenwood?