Law Tips: Drones – What are the Civil Liability Issues and Questions on the Horizon? Part 2

Welcome back to our Law Tips exploration into Invasion of the Drones with Chris Stevenson, Wilson Kehoe Winingham, Indianapolis, Indiana. Chris raised the following alert last week: “The increase of drone activity in the United States will also lead to the potential for various types of civil liability for personal injuries and property damage/property rights claims.” You’ll find the first part of his discussion on the developments surrounding drone activity below. So what’s next? Let’s hear from Chris on property rights and damage:

Property Rights and Damage Related to Drones
Drones also have the potential to impact property law. Two legal theories which potentially could be argued to apply to drone use are nuisance law and trespass law. A nuisance can be either public or private. “A public nuisance is one which affects an entire neighborhood or community, while a private nuisance affects only a single person or a determinate number of people. The essence of a private nuisance is the use of property to the detriment of the use and enjoyment of another’s property.” Wernke v. Halas, 600 N.E.2d 117, 120 (Ind. Ct. App.1992).

From public/private nuisances, Indiana law further breaks it down to nuisance per se and nuisance per accidens. Id. “A nuisance per se, as the term implies, is that which is a nuisance in itself, and which, therefore, cannot be so conducted or maintained as to be lawfully carried on or permitted to exist.” Windfall Manufacturing Co. v. Patterson (1897), 148 Ind. 414, 420, 47 N.E. 2, 4. A nuisance per accidens is an activity that is otherwise

lawful, but “produces such a condition as in the judgment of reasonable persons is naturally productive of actual physical discomfort to persons of ordinary sensibility, tastes, and habits.” Wendtv. Kerkhof594 N.E.2d 795,797 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992).

Nuisance law has been applied to aircraft in prior cases. In Biddle v. BAA Indianapolis, LLC, 860 N.E.2d 570 (Ind. 2007) homeowners near the Indianapolis International Airport brought suit against the Indianapolis Airport Authority raising claims of nuisance related to low flying aircraft and noise. While the nuisance claim was dropped in exchange for a “takings” claim under eminent domain law, Biddle shows that nuisance law principles can be asserted in claims regarding aircraft. Due to potential nuisance issues involving wildlife, the National Parks System has recently passed a ban on the use of drones inside Park property. Thus, drone use is ripe for property nuisance and trespass claims.

One of the key questions related to low flying drone operation is who owns the airspace over one’s property. In United States v. Causby, 328 U.S. 256, 66 S.Ct. 1062, 90 L.Ed. 1206 (1946), the U.S. Sup. Ct found that: “[t]he airplane is part of the modern environment of life, and the inconveniences which it causes are normally not compensable under the Fifth Amendment. The airspace, apart from the immediate reaches above the land, is part of the public domain …. Flights over private land are not a taking, unless they are so low and so frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment and use of the land.” The Fed. Claims Court later added the following presumption concerning the property rights associated with airspace. In Aaron v. United States, 160 Ct.Cl. 295, 311 F.2d 798 (1963), the court articulated a presumption based on navigable airspace boundaries. “When an aircraft flies within the navigable airspace directly above private property, the court presumes there is no taking unless the effect on private property is ‘so severe as to amount to a practical destruction or a substantial impairment of it.” Id. at 801. Indiana follows the Aaron presumption. Biddle, 860 N.E.2d at 580.

The problem with Aaron’s test is that it relies on “navigable airspace” to determine property rights. Currently navigable airspace is defined as airspace above the minimum altitudes of flight … including airspace needed to ensure safety in the takeoff and landing of aircraft. 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(32). In most areas the minimum altitude for flight is 500 feet above the ground. Thus, what happens when a drone is hovering only 100 feet above your house, or cuts across your yard at 50 feet to land at a neighbor’s house? Obviously, the current test provided by Aaron is not going to work for drones. What test will evolve to address property right claims of nuisance or trespass of drones will likely depend on what the FAA does to realign “navigable airspace.”

While there are many uncertainties about drones and property rights, one thing is certain, new law will be created to deal with the ever increasing use of drones. As one can see, there are many more questions than answers in trying to envision how the law will adapt to the use of drones in the coming years.


Thanks again to Chris Stevenson for his insights on this milestone topic. I’m sure we’ll want to ask him back to share his expertise as the law develops further around drones

If you would like to take advantage of the CLE program including Mr. Stevenson’s complete presentation, sign up for ICLEF’s Invasion of the Drones Video Replay seminars or On Demand Seminar.


About our Law Tips faculty participant:
Chris Stevenson is an attorney with Wilson Kehoe Winingham, Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law in 2003 and has focused his legal career on helping injured clients. Chris, a graduate of the Purdue University Aviation Flight Technology program, uses his technical and engineering background to focus on the firm’s product liability, aviation, and construction accident caseload.

About our Law Tips blogger:
Nancy Hurley has long-standing connections with Indiana lawyers. She was formerly a member of the ISBA and IBF staffs for over 30 years. Nancy’s latest lifestyle venture is with ICLEF. We are utilizing her exceptional writing and interviewing skills while exploring how her Indiana-lawyer background fits with ICLEF’s needs. When she isn’t ferreting out new topics for Law Tips, her work can be found in our Speaker Spotlight blogs, postings on the ICLEF Facebook and Twitter pages, and other places her legal experience lends itself.

Thank you for reading Law Tips. You may subscribe to this weekly blog through the RSS link at the top of this page.  Also, you are encouraged to comment below or email Nancy. She welcomes your input as she continues to sift through the treasure trove of knowledge of our CLE faculty to share with you.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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