Can Noise Disturbances in your HOA Kill You?

I heard from a reader the other day. He sent me some information. Here’s what he said:

“I am just sending you this message on noise matters. FYI.  I don’t want anything.”

It’s refreshing, – someone offering helpful information without asking for anything. It is valuable information that I will share. I haven’t written about noise issues for a awhile. But that doesn’t mean I have not heard of any. Just the other day I did a consultation with a client whose neighbor turns up the music to an unreasonably loud volume if my clients leave their porch light on. And the porch light isn’t unreasonably offensive, but the noisy neighbor is.

These are difficult issues to be sure. There are things that can be tried and we spent about an hour on the phone talking about them. And in this case, as in many similar situations, my client had some stress related health issues and had been warned to avoid stressful situations.  This is almost always true in situations involving a really offensive noise issue. Often the owner who is suffering the noise tells the association he or she will sue for emotional distress. No doubt emotional distress is involved, but whether it rises to a cause of action is determinative of the facts. Years ago I read about a superior court case in Oakland or San Francisco where a downstairs owner was awarded about $700,000 – the payout to be shared on a pro rata basis with about $400,000+ from an offensive owner (a judge no less) and about $300,000 from the HOA that took no action even though the below owner had complained many times about unauthorized flooring and unbearable noise.

The problem owner played his grand piano all hours and because he had installed hardwood or marble floors – can’t remember for sure –the noise reverberated throughout the unit and the surrounding units, especially the downstairs unit, and the floors vibrated. The hard surface floors were unauthorized and in violation of the HOA governing documents and the noise must’ve arisen to the serious nuisance level, and the jury obviously didn’t like the troublemaker.

It doesn’t always end well for those suffering the nuisance who go to court. I generally tell homeowners who want to sue that they can spend a lot of money if they pay an attorney to go to Superior Court on a noise issue and that they could end up spinning their wheels, especially if there is any question that might get in the way, such as when the problem is daytime kid-related noise which drives some people bonkers, dog toenails on hardwood flooring, or the fact that the complaining owner had tried noise-related retaliation. In one situation involving a fight that had erupted over a very loud coffee grinder going off at 5 am every morning, presumably by alarm to start coffee percolating, I recommended that the client who lived below purchase a new coffee grinder/maker combo that was advertised as whisper quiet – telling them it would be cheaper than going to court – and suggested that they offer it as a good-will gift to their upstairs neighbor to mend fences. Honestly, you may have to get creative.

In an HOA hearing I attended at the Board’s request, the complaining downstairs owner brought in a video from his doctor telling the HOA Board what health issues had evolved because of the noise dispute with the upstairs neighbor. The noise issue involved clomping in heavy shoes. The upstairs neighbor was in her 80s, and her hardwood flooring had been in place for about 20 years. She had some area rugs. The owner with the health issue and his wife had bought the unit a few years before – it was priced very favorably because the clomping had been disclosed – but the elderly couple thought they could live with it and bought the home anyway. It turned out they couldn’t live with it and when they could not get the upstairs neighbor to stop clomping, they had retaliated with loud TV playing and late night toilet flushing which had exacerbated the stress between the neighbors. Both hired attorneys. The board proposed mediation. Neither other party would go. They refused to even be in the same room. There is a lot more to the whole story and both of the owners’ attorneys tried to make the association a scapegoat but were unsuccessful with that. Sadly, the ultimate resolution was that the downstairs neighbor died and the clomper clomped on.

The owner who sent me the article that triggered this blog about noise told me, “Ms. Grimm, I talked to you a long time ago after my upstairs neighbor installed a hard surface floor in their condo.  I sued and had to settle.  It cost me a lot of money. Now, research is showing that noise is causing significant health problems. [I sent a] letter to my HOA.  They don’t care but sooner or later, the liability of these types of floors is going to come back to bite the HOAs that approve them without proper sound engineering.”

This reader may be on to something. Here is a pertinent part of the article and the website link he sent. It doesn’t definitively say that noise causes heart attacks but does say that constant and unusually high decibel level noise can contribute to the risk of a heart attack. I believe it having seen a noise dispute evolve into a neighbor to neighbor battle that ultimately contributed to a resident’s death, at least according to his doctor who was willing to go on record with that allegation.


Noise Raises Heart Attack Risk

WebMD/ November 28, 2005, 12:44 PM

Noise Raises Heart Attack Risk

Constant noise isn’t your heart’s desire, new research on heart attacks shows.  “Chronic noise burden is associated with the risk of [heart attack],” German doctors write in the European Heart Journal. They’re talking about a steady stream of noise at home or at work, such as the din of traffic, the clatter of construction, or the hustle and bustle of a big, busy office. Offices and cities needn’t be silent, but turning the volume down a bit might help hearts, researcher Stefan Willich, MD, and colleagues write.

How does noise raise heart attack risk? It could be a consequence of noise-related stress, Willich’s team notes.

Familiar Risk Factors

Noise certainly wasn’t the only heart danger seen in the patients. The usual suspects — such as smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high levels of blood fats — also raised the risk of heart attack. Combining those risk factors could be a bad mix, Willich writes. For instance, someone who smokes while on deadline in a noisy office could have a higher heart attack risk, the researchers note.

How Noise Hurts The Heart

…A certain threshold — about 60 decibels of street noise — was important, the researchers report. Beyond that threshold, higher noise levels didn’t worsen heart attack risk. In Europe, workers exposed to 85 or more decibels of noise are supposed to wear ear protection (such as during construction). That policy might protect ears, but not hearts, write Willich and colleagues. Sources: Willich, S. European Heart Journal, Nov. 24, 2005; online edition. News release, MW Communications.  By Miranda Hitti – Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD  2005, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved © 2005 WebMD, LLC.. All Rights Reserved.

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2 Responses to Can Noise Disturbances in your HOA Kill You?
  1. Angela
    October 16, 2013 | 12:45 am

    My problem with hard floor noise comes from the unit BELOW mine. I am on the top floor, and I can hear every step my neighbors make below me. It literally sounds like that they have lead feet and/or always stomp when they walk. I can put up with it during the day, but they pace back and forth all night. I’ve tried white noise generators to no avail. I’m not sure how to complain because you can’t fault someone for walking can you?

    • Beth Grimm
      October 26, 2013 | 5:15 am

      Sounds like a stomper case I had years ago. 80 year old woman who sounded like she wore lead shoes. If the floors are hard an unauthorized, there may be a remedy. If there is unreasonable noise all night, I would say that you could fault someone for making noise all night. Have you tried to work out something with the neighbor, perhaps offered to help them invest in some thickly padded runners or something. Maybe they are nervous, a pacer? Some people don’t like to be a nuisance. But it’s worth a try to find out.