Italian High Court Holds Loud Toilet Violated Plaintiffs’ Human Rights

Court of CassationItaly's Court of Cassation, its highest court and one that looks sort of like a wedding cake (image: Sergio D’Afflitto, CC 3.0 (cropped)).

Italy’s Court of Cassation has held that the rights of a couple to “the free and full expression of one’s habits of daily life, rights constitutionally guaranteed and protected by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” were violated by the “intolerable noises” coming from their neighbors’ toilet.

The ruling in July of last year finally brought an end to a 19-year legal dispute.

This titanic legal battle began in 2003 after four brothers in La Spezia put a new bathroom in their apartment. The couple living next door complained that the toilet was “used frequently during the night” and that the sound of the flush(es) was so loud that it woke them up every time. It appears that the headboard of the couple’s bed was against the wall where the brothers had placed the toilet, and their apartment was so small they could not put their bed elsewhere. Aggravating the problem, according to this report, was that “the flush-mounted toilet cistern had been installed in the partition wall, having a thickness of 22 cm, while it could have been placed in their bathroom.” (The original report is in Italian, which I do not speak, and also I’m no plumber.)

The couple took the matter to court, but they lost. (None of the reports I’ve seen explains that judge’s reasoning.) They appealed, and that court ordered an inspection of the two apartments, including a measurement of the noise level. After the inspectors found “a significant excess of three decibels over the standards required by legislation,” the court of appeals ruled in the couple’s favor.

Is three decibels really “significant”? To some extent it doesn’t matter, because any amount over the limit is … well, over the limit. But just because something doesn’t matter is no reason to avoid spending time on it, or else why are you reading this? These reports don’t say what the applicable legal standards are (and I’m not looking them up), or what level of noise was measured. But maybe we can still get some idea of what those three decibels represent.

What is a decibel, anyway? As you’ve probably already guessed, it is one-tenth of a bel. That is true, not a joke told by somebody’s engineer dad. According to Wikipedia, the decibel was created because phone companies needed a unit to measure transmission efficiency, which related to the loss of power over a given length of cable and the resulting attenuation of sound over the line. In 1928, they defined a new unit called the “bel,” in honor of telecommunications pioneer Alexander Graham Bell. It might have been more of an honor if they’d spelled his name right, but he had died in 1922 so he didn’t complain. Also, it turns out the bel itself is not very useful, which is why everyone now uses the decibel and the bel is largely forgotten. Still, it was a nice gesture.

Intrigued by the results of the automaton [a “talking head” he built], Bell continued to experiment with a live subject, the family’s Skye terrier, “Trouve.” After he taught it to growl continuously, Bell would reach into its mouth and manipulate the dog’s lips and vocal cords to produce a crude-sounding “Ow ah oo ga ma ma.” With little convincing, visitors believed his dog could articulate “How are you, grandmama?” Indicative of his playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a “talking dog.”

From Wikipedia’s article on Bell, which doesn’t explain why these onlookers failed to notice Bell’s arm down the dog’s throat

As for the significance of a three-decibel difference, Wikipedia’s article on the decibel is (after the history part) pretty much incomprehensible to yours truly. But according to this related article, the scale ranges from 0 to upwards of 190, and one-decibel differences seem to get less important as things get louder. For example, “light leaf rustling” or “calm breathing,” which you could probably sleep through, would be about 10 decibels; a “very calm room” is 20 to 30; and “normal conversation,” which is always irritating, is 40 to 60. In the lower ranges, it seems like three decibels would indeed be significant. On the other hand, if you were talking about the difference between a jackhammer (100) and a chainsaw (110), three seems less important. And if you were talking about the difference between a rifle shot one meter away (171) and the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa (172), that’d be a pretty good sign that it was time to end the current paragraph.

So as we were discussing four paragraphs ago, the court of appeals in Genoa ruled in favor of the couple and against the four oft-flushing brothers. It ordered them to move the toilet and pay 500 euros per year dating back to 2003. Did they accept this ruling? Of course not.

In this way did a toilet dispute reach the Court of Cassation, the highest court in Italy.

I was unable to get a copy of the decision from the court’s website, which is due either to the continuing conspiracy against me or my almost complete inability to speak Italian. But this appears to be the text of the court’s opinion (and if so thanks to Studio Legale Sugamele for this important public service). The brothers argued that the inspectors did not evaluate the toilet’s loudness correctly, but the court did not agree. They also argued that the couple hadn’t adequately proven damages, apparently on the ground that they didn’t allege physical symptoms. Not necessary, the court held, because Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF) protects, among other things, “the right to respect for one’s private and family life.” (See pp. 113–14 for other decisions holding that nuisances may violate this provision.) The ECHR doesn’t specifically guarantee the right to be free from loud toilets, but it’s there in the penumbra, basically.

As for why this dispute took the Italian court system 19 years to resolve, on that I have no information.

Update: I am told (by several helpful people) that because the decibel scale is logarithmic, a signal that’s three decibels higher would be twice as powerful, and therefore, in the case of a sound, potentially twice as loud. Because “loudness” is subjective, most would probably not perceive the sound as being twice as loud. But this seems consistent with my guess (which is what it was) that at low sound levels, 23 (for example) would seem much louder than 20. I should also point out that the estimate of 172 dB for the eruption of Krakatoa is apparently based on data gathered from 100 miles away, so I think it’s fair to describe that event as “loud.”