A spite fence is an unusually tall fence constructed between adjacent lots by a property owner. The purpose of the spite fence is merely to annoy an adjoining land owner or to completely obstruct his/her view between lots. The fence usually serves no other reasonable purpose to the owner. In the United States, state and local governments often have fence height restrictions to restrict the construction of spite fences. However, constructing a fence whose appearance just happens to annoy the aesthetic sensibilities of a neighbor is often permissible.
In the case of Burris v. Creech, it was observed that a spite fence or structure is one which is of no beneficial use or pleasure to the owner but was erected and is maintained for the purpose of annoying a neighbor.[i] Erecting a spite fence or structure is with the malicious motive of injuring the neighbor by shutting out his or her light, air, and view.[ii]
In the case of Haugen v. Kottas, it was held that a neighbor has no legal right to make a malicious use of his or her property for the avowed purpose of damaging the property owner.[iii] In other words, the right to use one’s own property for the sole purpose of maliciously injuring another is not one of the immediate and indestructible rights of ownership.[iv] Thus, courts generally hold that an adjoining landowner may sue for damages caused by, or may enjoin the erection or maintenance of, a spite fence or like structure erected for the sole purpose of injuring him/her in the lawful and beneficial use of property.[v]
In Dunbar v. O’Brien[vi], it was observed that a pile of old lumber obstructing light and air at cellar windows of the neighbor’s property was erected solely with the intention of injuring the neighbor. This action of the property owner violates the rights of the adjoining owner. Therefore, if an owner builds a fence without any benefit or pleasure to himself or herself, but solely with the malicious motive of injuring the adjoining owner by shutting out his or her light, air, or view, he or she violates the rights of the adjoining owner.[vii]
[i] 220 N.C. 302, 17 S.E.2d 123 (1941).
[ii] Racich v. Mastrovich, 65 S.D. 321, 273 N.W. 660 (1937).
[iii] 2001 MT 274, 307 Mont. 301, 37 P.3d 672 (2001).
[iv] Bush v. Mockett, 95 Neb. 552, 145 N.W. 1001 (1914); Hibbard v. Halliday, 1916 OK 649, 58 Okla. 244, 158 P. 1158 (1916).
[v] Norton v. Randolph, 176 Ala. 381, 58 So. 283 (1912)
[vi] 117 Neb. 245, 220 N.W. 278, 58 A.L.R. 1033 (1928)
[vii] Racich v. Mastrovich, 65 S.D. 321, 273 N.W. 660 (1937).