Neighbors of sports facilities sometimes voice concern about how those facilities adversely impact their lives and property values, pointing to such factors as increased street traffic and light pollution from ball fields illuminated at night. But potential annoyances can take many forms and emanate from a variety of sources — even private fitness businesses — as evidenced in Gianacakos v. Hudson River CrossFit et. al, Superior Court Of New Jersey Appellate Division, Docket No. A-0808-18t2.
Noise ordinance violations
In 2017, two owners of private residences filed a lawsuit against the owner/operator of a neighboring CrossFit facility. The plaintiffs sought damages for violation of a local Hoboken, N.J., noise ordinance, for continuation of a private nuisance, and for damages caused by a private nuisance tort and by a breach of contract (in this case, a mediation agreement).
The building at 701 Clinton Street is owned by defendant Ethel Koszeghy. Constructed as a concrete garage, the building was renovated for use as a commercial business. In 2013, Koszeghy leased the premises to defendant Hudson River Fitness LLC, which operated the space as a CrossFit gym. The lease prohibited Hudson River CrossFit from conducting a public nuisance at the property, but there were multiple allegations of noise ordinance violations between 2016 and 2018. Nonetheless, Koszeghy renewed the lease with Hudson River CrossFit in April 2018.
Plaintiffs Richard and Stephanie Gianacakos and Scott Freeman own residences at 703 Clinton Street, immediately next door to the CrossFit gym. The Gianacakoses live in the lower two floors; Freeman in the upper floors. Both the Gianacakoses and Freeman purchased their properties in April 2016. Shortly after moving into 703 — which had been newly constructed — plaintiffs noticed excessively loud music and other noise emanating from the gym at 701.
At the jury trial, Richard Gianacakos complained of being awakened in the early morning by vibrations and noise coming from Hudson River CrossFit, sounds of people screaming obscenities, repetitive thuds caused by dropped dumbbells and medicine balls thrown against the wall, and his resulting inability to use certain rooms in the home, including the master bedroom. The noise was described as loud enough to interfere with telephone conversations. Gianacakos used words such as "horrible" and "nightmare" to describe the substantial impact on his daily life.
Freeman likewise described the "awful" vibrations from Hudson River CrossFit as "a nightmare." He noted that the vibrations occurred every 10 to 15 seconds and were similar to "small explosions causing the entire building to shake." He testified the vibrations negatively affected his life because they woke him early in the morning and he could not use his premises for work-related or social gatherings.
Prior to taking any legal action, Gianacakos complained to Hudson River CrossFit's owner, John Franklin, and Freeman wrote to building owner Koszeghy complaining about the noise. However, the situation was not resolved. As such, Gianacakos filed a municipal court complaint to enforce the noise ordinance that he claimed was violated. Following mediation, Hudson River CrossFit, Franklin and Gianacakos reached an agreement in May 2017. Under the agreement, Hudson River Fitness and Franklin agreed to "keep noise and vibration down to a reasonable minimum pursuant to the relevant statutes." At trial, Gianacakos testified Hudson River Fitness and Franklin violated the agreement.
Engineers sound off
To document the ongoing noise disruption post May 2017, Gianacakos spent nearly a year documenting the noises from Hudson River CrossFit's operation heard inside his home. These noises included sounds he had complained of prior to the agreement, including the sound of weights dropping to the floor, objects hitting the wall, loud music, women screaming and profanities.
The noise issues inside the Gianacakos and Freeman homes were corroborated at trial by an expert sound engineer who measured sound and impact noises within the Gianacakos home. The engineer testified that the impact noise regularly exceeded the Hoboken ordinance, and music readings were nearly double the six-decibel limit set by the ordinance.
The defendants received supporting testimony at trial from a forensic construction engineer who stated that 703 Clinton Street was poorly constructed because it was interconnected to 701 in several different places. The engineer testified that he heard music and impact sounds from within Hudson River CrossFit, but did not hear them inside the Gianacakos residence.
Lastly, the City of Hoboken deputy coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management testified that he was aware there had been several complaints about noise at the gym. Upon investigation, he could not hear the music or weights with the doors and windows at 703 closed. However, he did not go into plaintiffs' homes and only walked outside the building at 703.
Actionable private nuisance
In 2018, the trial court ordered defendants to cease CrossFit operations at 701. The court found the music noise and impact noise constituted an actionable private nuisance, and that the noise unreasonably interfered with the use and enjoyment of the premises — interrupting work and leisure.
Further, the court determined Franklin breached the mediation agreement because noise levels within Hudson River CrossFit were not kept within the levels set by the ordinance. Specifically, the court prohibited Koszeghy from re-renting the premises to any tenant who would operate a gym using modalities similar to CrossFit, including weightlifting or utilizing any apparatus attached to the walls. Additionally, the order barred the installation or use of a public music system at 701.
Freeman and the Gianacakoses were denied compensatory damages because they did not assert that they incurred a monetary harm. However, the trial court ordered $100,000 in punitive damages against Hudson River Fitness and Franklin based on creating and maintaining continuing acts of private nuisance, with knowledge such acts were occurring. The punitive damages were intended to deter future actions.
The court found Franklin was "immediately" informed about the noise, and efforts were made to remediate this, but the noise continued with his knowledge. The court found that Franklin's actions willfully disregarded knowledge of conditions that created a high probability of harm to the Gianacakoses and Freeman. He was also found to have a reckless indifference to the consequences of that act or omission. Lastly, the court found the equities favored plaintiffs because the benefit of the gym to Franklin was "purely economic" while it interfered with the plaintiffs' ability to occupy and enjoy their homes.
As part of the trial court decision, the order to cease operations and the punitive damages judgment would be suspended if all weightlifting ceased at 701. The court ordered that activities at Hudson River CrossFit could be monitored by plaintiffs, but if the music or vibration levels were measured to exceed the Hoboken Municipal Code, the gym at 701 would have to immediately close, and the punitive damages award would be levied as a judgment against both Franklin and Hudson River Fitness.
The defendants appealed the trial court judgment citing multiple claims. Specifically, the defendants argued that the trial court mistakenly found defendants liable for a private nuisance, and that it imposed overbroad remedies based on that finding. The defendants argued that testimony provided during the trial substantiated their efforts to address plaintiffs' complaints — efforts that included equipment modifications, modifications in the manner that members drop weights, and changes to the CrossFit program itself.
Moreover, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs did not prove that defendants' conduct was intentional. Lastly, the defendants asserted that Hudson River CrossFit was operating at 701 for three years before 703 was constructed and that Freeman and the Gianacakoses were aware of CrossFit prior to purchasing their homes.
Established legal precedent in New Jersey states that in evaluating whether there is a private nuisance, a trial court must weigh "[t]he utility of the defendant's conduct ... against the quantum of harm to the plaintiff" in order to determine "whether the annoyance or disturbance arises from an unreasonable use of the neighbor's land or operation of his business" [Sans v. Ramsey Golf & Country Club, Inc., 29 N.J. 438, 448 (1959)]. Further, the law provides that noise may constitute a nuisance where it presents "(1) injury to the health or comfort of ordinary people to an unreasonable extent, and (2) unreasonableness under all the circumstances, particularly after balancing the needs of the maker to the needs of the listeners" [Traetto v.Palazzo, 436 N.J. Super. 6, 12 (App. Div. 2014)].
Using the legal standard above, the appellate court determined in April 2020 that there was sufficient credible evidence to support the finding by the trial court that the operation of Hudson River CrossFit created a private nuisance by producing noise and vibration that significantly exceeded the municipal ordinance requirements within plaintiffs' premises. The appellate court recognized the utility to a gym in terms of adding to the physical and mental fitness of its members, but found the utility of those benefits did not outweigh the impact on plaintiffs through the loss of enjoyment and use of their property on a daily basis. The appellate court upheld the finding that Hudson River Fitness was liable because it operated the gym, Franklin was individually liable in that he did not adhere to his agreement to keep noise at reasonable levels, and Koszeghy was liable in that she owned the building where the gym operated, was aware of the noise based on correspondence from Freeman, and did not take action to abate it, and in fact re-leased the property to Hudson River CrossFit.
Regarding abuse of discretion, the defendants contended the trial court abused its discretion because its order effectively shut down the CrossFit business at 701 and prohibited Koszeghy from re-renting the premises to any other business using a public sound system. Upon review, the appellate court determined that where a nuisance has been found, the court can order the activity to cease. In this case, the trial court suspended its order to cease operations assuming Hudson River CrossFit could operate "without dropping weights, throwing medicine balls against the wall or playing loud music." As such, the appellate court found that the gym was not closed, rather its operation was conditioned on not conducting certain types of activities. The inability of the gym to operate without such activities does not impact the trial court's ability to impose such restrictions.
Additionally, defendants argued on appeal that the punitive damage award was unfounded. This argument was successful on appeal, as punitive damages can only be awarded if compensatory damages are awarded in the trial court judgment.
Although the defendants successfully negated the punitive damage award, the trial court finding of private nuisance, and the conditions imposed to continue operations, provide valuable lessons for premises owner/operators. Specifically, premises owners have a responsibility to lease property to tenants who comply with the law, including local ordinances. Facility lease agreements should place this burden on the tenant and impose a penalty for violation.
In this case, the building owner was aware of the ongoing dispute with the homeowners at 701 Clinton Street and had the requisite language in the lease. However, the premises owner chose to renew the tenant's lease despite that knowledge and lease provision. This is certainly not best practice.
Regarding the Hudson River CrossFit owner, a willful disregard for both a local ordinance and a mediation agreement resulted in deserved liability, both to the business and to the owner individually. This case makes clear that a CrossFit facility and a personal residence cannot co-exist in adjacent space with a physical connection between buildings. While the CrossFit operations at 701 did exist prior to the residential occupancy of 703, renewing the lease of Hudson River CrossFit in 2018 resulted in the continuance of a situation that created a clear nuisance, thus the liability imposed by the court was both appropriate and avoidable.
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Noise from CrossFit franchise deemed private nuisance." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.