The green-painted brick rowhouse in the 800 block of Fifth Street NE has been in Edwin Gray’s family since 1964, when his mother, who worked three jobs, bought it to raise her eight children.
Now Gray lives in the house with his four adult sons. And every once in a while, he said, he likes to relax by smoking a cigarette, burning incense or even lighting up marijuana.
“It’s my house, and I should be allowed to do what I want inside my own home,” said Gray, 53.
But his next-door neighbors, who arrived at their newly renovated home in September, say Gray’s habits are endangering their health and making it difficult to enjoy their space. Lawyers Brendan and Nessa Coppinger said smoke seeps through a common wall into their home, filling their bedroom and their daughter’s playroom.
When neighborly overtures didn’t resolve the problem, the Coppingers went to D.C. court, suing Gray and his sister, Mozella Boyd Johnson, for $500,000 alleging negligence, nuisance and trespassing — arguing that the smoke has intruded on their property.
Last week, D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronna Lee Beck, at least for now, banned smoking of “any substance whatsoever” in the Gray home.
The judge further ordered Gray to deny “reentry to the premises of anyone who has violated the prohibition on smoking or this order.”
“This is a health concern,” said Nessa Coppinger, 38, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child. “We don’t smoke. We don’t allow smoking in our home. We have smoke in our house all the time. All we have ever wanted was for the smoke to stop coming into our house.”
The lawsuit, first reported by WJLA (Channel 7), is part of a growing trend of court disputes pitting smokers against nonsmokers.
In 2013, a jury in Orange County, Calif., found that a homeowners association failed to resolve a secondhand smoke dispute among neighbors and awarded a family $15,000. In 2011, a cigar-smoking resident of Manhattan’s swanky Upper East Side was sued for $2 million by neighbors who said smoke wafted into their luxury condo. The neighbor eventually agreed to pay a $2,000 fine anytime the couple smelled the cigar smoke.
In Washington, civil attorneys say they are noticing more disputes between neighbors reaching the courthouse, involving matters including driveways, trees and access to passageways through yards. A feud between smoking and nonsmoking neighbors wasn’t that surprising.
“The trend is going in the direction where people are getting more invested in what their neighbors are doing and quicker to pull the trigger and initiate some sort of litigation, particularly if there is some health angle to the neighbor’s actions,” said David H. Dickieson, a litigation specialist and partner at the Washington law firm of Schertler & Onorato. He is not involved in the Coppinger-Gray case.
Dickieson said that although he was not surprised over lawsuits between neighbors arising from secondhand smoke, he was surprised that the judge ruled that a homeowner could not smoke within the confines of his own home. “This is contrary to the traditional idea that a man’s home is his castle, and it represents another step limiting what used to be called smokers’ rights,” he said.
The judge’s no-smoking injunction will remain in place until a follow-up decision by the judge or until trial, which is scheduled for the fall. Gray says he is now compelled to leave his home and walk several yards away from his property to smoke.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” said Gray, who lives on disability checks. “I’m a grown man. They passed a law that says you can smoke marijuana in my house. I can’t do anything now. What if I’m in here frying chicken and they complain they smell smoke? She going to send the marshals to come get me.”
Nessa Coppinger, an environmental lawyer, said her family filed the lawsuit out of fear for their health, including that of their 18-month-old daughter and the couple’s unborn child. Coppinger said her basement, which they have converted into a playroom for their daughter, and the bathroom are often full of smoke. She said she has awakened at night coughing because of the smoke. And she said she and her family have had to leave the house for hours to allow the strong smell of smoke to dissipate.
During earlier court proceedings, both families agreed to inspections of their houses. Inspectors discovered cracks in the common wall between the homes. Inspectors also said that the chimney on the Gray home was decaying and as a result was sending smoke from the Gray home into the Coppinger’s home.
“If they just get these things fixed, the lawsuit will go away. This isn’t about the money,” Nessa Coppinger said.
Before filing the lawsuit, she said she and her husband sent several letters to Gray and his family trying to get them to agree on the fixes. But she said the letters were ignored.
“If they continued to refuse to speak with us or to take any action, and have no concern about the health of our children, we had to pursue our case,” she said.
“This lawsuit would probably be gone tomorrow if they got it fixed and brought it to code,” said the Coppingers’ attorney, Eric Klein, a colleague of Nessa Coppinger’s at the law firm Beveridge & Diamond. “It would all end. We just want the house to be safe for these children.”
But Johnson, who owns the Gray family home, said she is concerned that the Coppingers, who have said in letters filed in court that they are willing to pitch in on the cost of repairs, would have too much say over whether any work was done properly. She also questions whether the renovation next door, done before the Coppingers bought the home, could have caused some of the damage to her home.
“You’re not going to dictate who comes into my home to do work and how the work is done, and then have the chance to sue me again if you feel the work wasn’t done the way you want it done. This is my home,” Johnson said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the judge ordered inspections of both houses. The families agreed to the inspections.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.