In the News: Despite Changes, the Sriracha Hot Sauce Legal Battle Still Burns

In our In the News series, we use an article or topic that has been featured recently in the news as a potential learning opportunity.

Last year the Los Angeles Times reported that the city of Irwindale, California had sued Huy Fong Foods (“HFF”), the manufacturer of Sriracha hot sauce, after residents complained of physical malaise. According to HFF’s website, “Sriracha is made from sun ripen chilies which are ground into a smooth paste along with garlic and packaged in a convenient squeeze bottle.” The lawsuit followed alleged complaints by several city residents that HFF’s factory was emitting offensive and noxious fumes leading to burning eyes, irritated throats, coughing, and headaches. Some residents apparently complained the fumes even prevented them from going outside at times.

In its lawsuit, Irwindale asserts that the emission of these odors constitutes a public nuisance. Although California law will apply to determine the outcome of this lawsuit, Texas also recognizes legal claims for nuisances. A nuisance is a condition that substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of land by causing unreasonable discomfort or annoyance to persons of ordinary sensibilities. Texas law distinguishes public and private nuisances. A public nuisance is a condition that amounts to an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public. A private nuisance is a non-trespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land.

A variety of different activities (or lack of activities) may constitute nuisances. Some arguably obvious examples include incessant loud noise during late hours, the discharge of inordinate amounts of dust or dirt, bright lights, and possessing or making controlled substances. Less obvious examples in Texas include, for example in unincorporated areas of a county, the following: keeping refuse on premises in a neighborhood unless it’s entirely contained within an enclosed receptacle, keeping rubbish on premises in a neighborhood or within 300 feet of a public street for ten or more days unless it’s completely enclosed within a building or isn’t visible from a public street, allowing weeds to grow on premises in a neighborhood if the weeds are located within 300 feet of another residence or commercial establishment, and maintaining a flea market that constitutes a fire hazard. And there are many, many other actions or inactions that may be alleged to constitute nuisances.

At the outset of its case, Irwindale asked the judge to shut down all of HFF’s factory operations during the pendency of the lawsuit. The judge, however, believed that request was over broad. Instead, he ordered that HFF was prevented from “emitting anything that causes odors or are odors in themselves,” and that HFF was “to immediately make changes in its site operations reducing odors and the potential for odors consistent with” certain air quality mitigation measures. This order did not conclusively determine the outcome of the lawsuit. It was only intended to preserve the status quo of the subject matter of the litigation, taking into account the health and safety allegations, until there is a trial on the merits.

On Friday, the Pasadena Star-News reported that HFF recently made changes to its odor filtering system and has invited the city’s Community Development Director to the factory to observe the changes. Nevertheless, the city of Irwindale has stated that it plans to add a breach of contract claim to their lawsuit. The case is scheduled for trial this autumn. Ironically, if this lawsuit causes a decrease in HFF’s production, it may actually help HFF’s business under traditional market principles of supply and demand.

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