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Think Carefully Before Suing your Neighbour

By Robert Hof

Many times what starts off as an innocent disagreement can escalate into something major, if you are not careful. It can be an argument about noise, boundary issues, trees or fences. But if you are considering suing your neighbour about any issue, think about the following first:

  • Whatever hard feelings exist now, they will get much worse if you start a lawsuit.
  • Try to settle it as diplomatically and amicably as possible. Remember, the worst settlement, is in my opinion, better than the best lawsuit.
  • Consider checking the title of your neighbour’s property first, to see if they have any equity in it should you win your case;
  • Maybe it is better to just move away from the neighbour than start a fight. You don’t know how the person may react to a lawsuit.

Here’s an illustration of why you want to avoid a suit at all costs, since in most cases, even when you win, you lose.

In 2007, David Fitzpatrick, a homeowner in Pickering, Ontario, was involved with a boundary issue with his neighbour, William and Anna Squires. The dispute quickly escalated. Then on November 12, 2007, the Squires walked out their front door, only to find the carcass of a dead, bloody coyote on the hood of their pickup truck.

The Squires’ pressed charges against Mr. Fitzpatrick, but the case was later thrown out by the police. They could not prove that Mr. Fitzpatrick did the act as the video camera installed by the Squires had been disabled the night before.

Fitzpatrick then decided to sue the Squires for malicious prosecution and also sued his sister, Shelley Orwin, who he alleged was conspiring with the Squires against him. In a decision dated June 18, 2012, Justice David Stinson of the Ontario Superior Court dismissed Fitzpatrick’s case, and awarded the Squires damages of almost $340,000 for among other things, mental distress, legal costs, and punitive damages. He awarded Ms. Orwin almost $70,000 in legal costs. The judge found as a fact that, based on all the evidence, it was Mr. Fitzpatrick who either placed the coyote or caused someone else to place the coyote on the Squires’ truck. Fitzpatrick recently appealed the decision against the Squires and lost.

In an interview, the Squires indicated that while they are glad they won the case, they may never see any money. I assume that this is due to the fact that even though Fitzpatrick may own his home, there may be mortgages registered against it and he may have little equity left. It could take years for them to collect anything. In the meantime, the Squires had to pay their lawyers all their legal costs.

This was a difficult situation, since the Squires did not start this lawsuit. They had to defend one started by their neighbour.

A related issue is whether a seller needs to disclose to a buyer about a neighbour who is peculiar. Most lawyers will say no. For example, I have seen streets closed down on Halloween when someone puts up this huge ghoulish display for weeks, bringing onlookers from all over the City. Do you want to live next door to that house?

This is another reason why you need to do some research before you buy any home to make sure there are no odd neighbours on the street. Go and knock on the doors and ask people. For example, check to see if any neighbour has very sophisticated video surveillance equipment near their front door. This is not usual. Do the right research before you buy and avoid surprises after closing.

Article courtesy of real estate lawyer Mark Weisleder

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