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Vincent v. Lake Erie Transportation Co


    Citation. Vincent v. Lake Erie Transp. Co., 109 Minn. 456, 124 N.W. 221, 1910 Minn. LEXIS 588 (Minn. 1910)

    Brief Fact Summary. Lake Erie Transportation Co. (Defendant) tied and prudently held its steamship to Vincent’s (Plaintiff’s) dock during a severe storm. In doing so, Defendant preserved its steamship at the expense of Plaintiff’s dock. Plaintiff seeks compensation for the damage done to the dock and Defendant claims the privilege of private necessity.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A party acting under private necessity is liable for damages incurred to the property of others.


    Facts. Defendant tied their steamship to a dock owned by Plaintiff. The steamship was at the Plaintiff’s dock to unload cargo. While the cargo was being unloaded, a storm started to build. After the cargo had been unloaded, the storm became so violent that navigation was practically suspended. Defendant signaled for a tug to tow the steamship from the dock but no tug was available because of the storm. The Defendant’s steamship remained tied to Plaintiff’s dock. If the steamship had been untied, it would have drifted to sea. The storm threw the steamship into Plaintiff’s dock causing damage to the dock. The jury awarded Plaintiff $500 for the damage done to the dock. Defendant appealed.

    Issue. Is Defendant, acting under the privilege of private necessity, liable for damages incurred to Plaintiff’s property?

    Held. Yes. Order affirmed.
    * Because of the storm, it would have been highly imprudent for Defendant to attempt to leave the dock or to have permitted his vessel to drift away from it. The Plaintiff and Defendant used ordinary prudence and care in holding the vessel fast to the dock.
    * Plaintiff argued that is was negligent for Defendant to tie the steamship to an exposed part of the dock, and to leave it there after it became apparent that the storm was severe. The court disagreed. The court held that the location of the docking of the steamship to be a proper and safe place.
    * Defendant claimed that, because of the storm, it was necessary to keep the steamship tied to Plaintiff’s dock and Defendant cannot be held liable for any injury resulting to the property of others. The court disagreed. If Defendant’s steamship had entered the harbor during the storm, become disabled, and been thrown against Plaintiff’s dock, then Plaintiff could not recover. In this case, the steamship was deliberately held against the dock. Defendant preserved its steamship at the expense of Plaintiff’s dock. The Defendant is responsible for the damage done to Plaintiff’s dock.
    * This is not a case where life or property was menaced by any object or thing belonging to Plaintiff, the destruction of which became necessary to prevent the threatened disaster. Nor is it a case where, because of the act of God, the infliction of the injury was beyond the control of Defendant. In this case, Defendant prudently availed itself of Plaintiff’s property for the purpose of preserving its own more valuable property. Plaintiff is entitled to compensation for the damage done to the dock.

    Dissent. (J. Lewis) The majority opinion assumes that Defendant’s steamship was lawfully tied to Plaintiff’s dock. If the steamship was lawfully tied to the dock at the time of the storm, and Defendant could not, in the exercise of due care, have left the dock without subjecting his vessel to the hazards of the storm, then the damage to the dock was the result of an inevitable accident. If Plaintiff constructed a dock to a navigable line of waters and entered into contractual relations with Defendant, then Plaintiff takes the risk of damage to his dock by a boat caught there by a storm.

    Discussion. This case represents a “conditional” or “incomplete” privilege. Here, Defendant may use Plaintiff’s dock because of the emergency situation, but he could only do so when it is a necessity. Defendant must pay for the privilege with reasonable rental value or compensation for lost or damaged property.

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