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Surocco v. Geary

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    Bloomberg Law

    Brief Fact Summary. Alcalde of San Francisco (Defendant), in the midst of a massive fire, destroyed Plaintiff’s house in an effort to stave off the fire.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person who tears down or destroys the house of another, in good faith, and under apparent necessity, during a deadly fire, in an effort to save the adjacent buildings and to stop the fire’s progress, cannot be held personally liable in an action by the owner in connection with the destroyed property.

    Facts. In the midst of a raging fire, Geary (Defendant), in his capacity of public official, made the decision to destroy Plaintiff’s building; it was subsequently blown up to stop the progress of the fire. Plaintiffs brought an action against Defendant for the destruction of Plaintiffs’ house and store. The trial court awarded damages to Plaintiffs.

    Issue. Can a person who, in good faith, destroys property out of public necessity in order to prevent greater damage be held liable?

    Held. The Supreme Court of California reversed the trial court’s award of damages to Plaintiffs, maintaining that the court clearly erred; a person who destroys the house of another in good faith, and under apparent necessity, cannot be held personally liable.

    Discussion. The central legal tenet embodied in Surocco is that the private rights of the individual must yield to the considerations and the interests of society. The court notes further “the right to destroy property, to prevent the spread of a conflagration, has been traced to the highest law of necessity.” In other words, what under normal circumstances would be a tortious act may be justified in exigent circumstances such as a raging fire.
    * The court does take note of the role of the legislature with regard to issues of public policy, i.e., who makes the determination as to which property may properly be destroyed during an emergency. Lawmakers, the court suggests, should make determinations as to the manner in which such property may be destroyed, and the mode in which compensation should be paid.


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