Morgan v. High Penn Oil Co.

238 N.C. 185, 77 S.E.2d 682 (1953)

Quick Summary

Morgan (plaintiff) sued High Penn Oil Co. (defendant) for private nuisance due to noxious gases emitted by their oil refinery. The trial court ruled in favor of Morgan, and High Penn appealed.

The Supreme Court of North Carolina held that the oil refinery could be considered a nuisance irrespective of negligence. The case against High Penn was remanded for a new trial due to errors in jury instructions, while the claim against Southern Oil Transportation Company was dismissed.

Facts of the Case

Morgan (plaintiff) owned property adjacent to an oil refinery operated by High Penn Oil Co. (defendant). The refinery was emitting nauseating gases and odors, which occurred several days a week, adversely affecting Morgan’s use and enjoyment of their property.

Morgan claimed these emissions constituted a private nuisance and sued High Penn Oil Co. for relief. High Penn argued that their operations were legal and the emissions were an inevitable part of running the refinery.

High Penn Oil Co. contended that as a lawful business, it could not be held as a nuisance per se or at law, and only negligent operation could lead to a nuisance per accidens or in fact. However, the trial court found in favor of Morgan, prompting High Penn to appeal the decision.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Morgan brought suit against High Penn Oil Co. for private nuisance due to emissions from the oil refinery.
  2. High Penn moved for compulsory nonsuit, claiming legal operation and non-negligent emissions.
  3. The trial court denied the motion and found in favor of Morgan.
  4. High Penn appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether an oil refinery can constitute a private nuisance per accidens or in fact without being operated in a negligent manner.

Rule of Law

Private nuisances can be classified as nuisances per se or at law, and nuisances per accidens or in fact. An oil refinery cannot be a nuisance per se or at law due to its lawful nature, but it can be a nuisance per accidens or in fact irrespective of negligence, based on its location or manner of operation.

Reasoning and Analysis

The court rejected High Penn Oil Co.’s primary argument that only negligent operation could result in a nuisance. It clarified that negligence and nuisance are distinct concepts in tort law, and a business can intentionally create a nuisance without being negligent.

The court also found that the complaint sufficiently alleged facts showing an intentional and unreasonable invasion of the plaintiffs’ interest in the use and enjoyment of their land, which could establish an actionable private nuisance.

The court further explained that a private nuisance exists when there is a substantial and nontrespassory invasion of another’s interest in the use and enjoyment of land. In this case, the evidence supported the possibility that High Penn Oil Co.’s operations unreasonably interfered with Morgan’s property rights.


The trial court’s decision was upheld regarding High Penn Oil Co., finding sufficient evidence to establish a private nuisance. The case was remanded for a new trial due to prejudicial error in instructions to the jury. The claim against Southern Oil Transportation Company was reversed due to a lack of evidence connecting it to the construction and operation of the refinery.

Key Takeaways

  1. An oil refinery can be considered a nuisance per accidens or in fact even if it is not operated negligently.
  2. A private nuisance exists when there is an unreasonable interference with someone’s use and enjoyment of their land.
  3. The complaint sufficiently alleged facts demonstrating an actionable private nuisance.
  4. Prejudicial error in jury instructions warrants a new trial.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is the distinction between a nuisance per se and a nuisance per accidens?

A nuisance per se, or at law, is an act, occupation, or structure that is a nuisance at all times and under any circumstances, regardless of location or surroundings. It typically infringes upon public rights and interests. Conversely, a nuisance per accidens, or in fact, arises from the manner in which the activity or property use is conducted in relation to its surroundings. It’s deemed a nuisance due to its impact on specific individuals rather than the general public.

  • For example: A factory that emits harmful pollutants directly into residential areas could be deemed a nuisance per accidens if it significantly impairs local residents’ health and enjoyment of their properties, despite the factory’s operations being legal and ordinarily permissible in an industrial zone.

How does intentional interference with property use lead to a private nuisance claim?

Intentional interference with property use becomes actionable as a private nuisance when someone intentionally performs an act that significantly interferes with another’s use and enjoyment of their land. This act does not have to be negligent or prohibited by law to constitute a nuisance.

  • For example: An individual setting up an excessively loud speaker system in their backyard that disrupts the neighbor’s peaceful environment every night can establish grounds for a private nuisance claim due to intentional interference with the neighbor’s use and enjoyment of their property.

Can lawful businesses be held liable for nuisances if they interfere unreasonably with neighboring properties?

Yes, even lawful businesses can be held liable for creating a nuisance if their operations unreasonably interfere with adjacent properties. The unreasonableness of the interference is judged by its impact on those properties rather than the lawfulness of the business activities.

  • For example: A commercial bakery located in a mixed-use neighborhood that operates during night hours could be liable for noise and smell nuisance affecting nearby residents, regardless of its compliance with business regulations and zoning laws.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Property Law