If the lawsuit against Pat O’Brien’s Bar were a person, it would have a driver’s license by now and might be heading off to college. Back in 2004, French Quarter residents Peterson Yokum and Polly Anderson filed suit against Pat O’s seeking $10 million in damages for alleged violations of the City of New Orleans’ noise ordinances.
The volume of the sound emanating from the popular bar was allegedly past the legal limit and denying Yokum and Anderson “the proper quiet enjoyment of their home,” according to court documents. In fact, the homeowners claimed that the noise was “sufficient to cause physical discomfort and annoyance” to them and to “any person of ordinary sensibilities.”
But on May 19, a judge concluded that Yokum and Anderson’s lawyers hadn’t proven that the sounds from Pat O’Brien’s patio bar had been “unreasonable or excessive in light of the circumstances.”
After four days of testimony before a jury in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, Judge Richard G. Perque brought the lawsuit to an abrupt close, without requiring the jury to vote on the matter.
According to court documents, in what’s called a “directed verdict,” Judge Perque found that there was no way “reasonable, fair-minded jurors” could arrive at a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.
The written judgment from the court explains that the “community noise expert” hired to test the sound levels at Yokum and Anderson’s home failed to prove that Pat O’Brien’s exceeded city limits. Based on a noise level chart in the New Orleans municipal codes, the maximum level in the Vieux Carre Commercial area, which encompasses Pat O's and the plaintiffs' residence, is 65 decibels over ambient sound.
Pat O’Brien’s spokeswoman Shelly Waguespack said that O’Brien’s has occupied its location since 1942. Though popular, it isn’t an especially loud establishment to start with, she said. In the outdoor courtyard, customers are supposed to be able to have conversations as they imbibe.
“We’re not a dance club or that type of venue,” Waguespack said.
But in 2018, or thereabouts, management tried to accommodate Yokum and Anderson by putting capping the volume of the sound system in the bar’s sometimes-crowded courtyard.
“The French Quarter is a noisy place,” Waguespack said, especially near Bourbon Street, “the heart of the entertainment district.”
The bar’s insurance company has probably paid plenty to defend the establishment against the lawsuit, Waguespack said. “It’s frustrating that we had to go through all this.”
Pat O’Brien’s lawyer Ben Grau said the lawsuit took so long because of Hurricane Katrina, the COVID pandemic and Yokum and Anderson's pursuit of other lawsuits simultaneously.
Yokum and Anderson’s home lies on Toulouse Street in the same block as Pat O’Brien’s, not far from raucous Bourbon Street. Their lawsuit against Pat O’s was one of several similar suits that the couple brought against other establishments in the area for alleged noise violations.
In 2014, a jury decided that the Funky 544 club did not have to pay Yokum and Anderson the $20 million they’d asked for in noise nuisance damages. The couple also sued the Old Opera House bar, the Court of Two Sisters restaurant, and The Rock, which is now closed. The outcomes of those cases are unclear.
Matt Rogenes, an attorney representing Yokum and Anderson, said that Pat O’Brien’s suit was the last remaining claim of the bunch. But, he said, “We disagree with the ruling and we plan to appeal.”
Rogenes said that since the judge employed a direct verdict, his clients were denied the opportunity to be judged by fellow New Orleans citizens. “It’s a community issue,” he said, and we were looking forward to hearing what the twelve community members had to say about it.”
Yokum has lived in the Toulouse Street property since 1966 and Anderson sometime after. Rogenes said their situation is an example of a widespread conflict in the Quarter between commercial and residential interests.
“Businesses and residents have been living side by side for years,” he said. “The only way that will go forward is to respect the law and the residential use of property.”
He said that, in his clients’ case, the business practices of the institutions that Yokum and Anderson sued, impacted their home lives.
“No one ever said they didn’t expect to hear music,” Rogenes said of his client’s expectations of quiet.
But the noise issue went beyond mere annoyance. In fact, Rogenes said, his clients have been diagnosed with stress-induced disorders they say are caused by the noise. Whether or not Yokum and Anderson would have received $10 million in damages, he said, should have been “for the jury to sort out.”