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Surocco v. Geary

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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant blew up and destroyed plaintiff’s home to stop the progress of a fire that was spreading across San Francisco. Plaintiff sued for damages.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A person is privileged to enter or destroy property if it appears reasonably necessary to avoid a threat to public safety and the action taken is reasonable under the circumstances.

Facts.

In 1849, a large fire engulfed much of San Francisco. Geary was the alcalde, or mayor, of San Francisco at the time. Seeing at his responsibility to stop the fire, Geary blew up Surocco’s home to create a break in the path of the fire. Surocco was in the process of removing his personal property from his home when it was destroyed. Surocco alleged that if his home had not been blown up, then he could have succeeded in removing more, if not all of his belongings. Surocco sued to recover damages for the destroyed property.

Issue.

Can a person who, acting in good faith and under apparent necessity, destroys the property of another be held personally liable in an action by the owner of that property?

Held.

No. Necessity justifies Geary’s otherwise tortious act. The judgment of the trial court against the defendant is reversed.

Discussion.

The necessity doctrine can be traced back to both natural and common law. The doctrine rests upon a Latin maxim that states “necessity provides a privilege for private rights.” Therefore, when there is a threat to public safety, property rights must give way to necessity. Here, creating a fire break by blowing up Surocco’s house served the considerations of general convenience and the interests of society. A house that is capable of spreading the fire to the other homes in the immediate vicinity is a nuisance. The fire would have left the city in ruin if a break in its path had not been created. Additionally, Surocco’s house would have been inevitably consumed by the fire. Geary cannot be found liable for destroying Surocco’s home when he acted in good faith and under apparent necessity.


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