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Burgess v. M/V Tamano

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Brief Fact Summary.

The defendant tanker ship struck a large rock, causing it to spill 100,000 gallons of oil into the bay relied upon by the plaintiff class for their livelihoods.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

In cases of public nuisance, one must show that he was specially injured by the interference with the public right in order to recover.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

This was consistent with the general principle that pecuniary loss to the plaintiff will be regarded as different in kind where the plaintiff has an established business making commercial use of the public right with which the defendant interferes.

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Facts.

The plaintiff is representing a class injured by the discharge of 100,000 gallons of Bunker C oil by the defendant tanker into the waters of the Casco Bay. On July 22, 1972, the defendant struck an outcropping of a rock named Soldier Ledge while en route to Portland, spilling oil and polluting the water in the bay.

Issue.

Should the defendant’s motion to dismiss be granted?

Held.

Yes in regards to the business owners on shore. No in regards to the commercial fisherman and clam diggers. The onshore business owners were unable to demonstrate that they had been specially injured by the oil spill.

Discussion.

The right to fish in the bay is a public right, not a private right held by any one citizen. Therefore, there are no private property interests at stake and so the plaintiff class must rely on a theory of public nuisance. The doctrine of public nuisance requires that the plaintiff suffered an injury particular to him, rather than one sustained by the general public. The court acknowledges that it is often difficult to draw the line between particular and general injuries, but it determines that the commercial fishermen and clam diggers suffered a particular injury to their livelihoods. The court then cites a number of cases in which fishermen were able to recover for damage to the waterways in which they fish. The pecuniary loss suffered by these professionals—caused by interference with a public right—is different in kind to the damage suffered by the general public. The business owners on the beach however did not assert any interference with their public rights, and their injuries were merely derivative of the sort of general injury suffered by the community at large.


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