Vincent v. Lake Eric Transp. Co.

Supreme Court of Minnesota, 1910.

109 Minn. 456, 124 N.W. 221.

Prosser, pp. 120-121


Facts: A steamship was moored to a dock when a storm came in.  If the ship had been cut loose from the dock, it would have been blown away and might have caused damage to something else.  Instead, the ship was tied to the dock, but because of the storm, it kept hitting the dock, damaging it.  The owner of the dock sued the owner of the steamship.  The trial court found for the plaintiffs and the defendant appealed.


Issue: Does the defendant have the privilege by necessity to moor the ship such that the defendant is not liable?


Rule: The defendant has a partial privilege to protect its private property from serious harm.  The defendant will be subject to liability to anyone who is injured.


Analysis: The court basically says to the defendant that what it did was right under the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to pay the plaintiff for the damage done.  The court implicitly distinguishes this case from Surocco in that the former case dealt with public necessity.


Conclusion: The court affirmed the order denying a new trial.


Notes and Questions


1.     There is a good economic argument for this rule.  We want to encourage an actor like Lake Erie in this case to make an efficient decision about whether to moor its ship or not.  Society’s goal should be to minimize the total loss to society.  $500 in damage to the dock is probably nothing compared to the cost of the destruction of the steamship.  However, we do want to equitably distribute this loss.  Vincent really had no interest in the steamship, so Vincent shouldn’t have to pay to maintain it or preserve it from damage.  It is appropriate in this case to shift the cost to Lake Erie not only for the present case, but for subsequent cases.  We want to encourage actors like Vincent to allow the economically efficient use of their facilities by assuring them that they will be compensated for any damage.

2.     This would be different because the safety of persons would be at stake and the law values the protection of human life more highly than property.  I think the ship’s owner would not be liable for any damages that occurred during the period the crewmen were escaping.  However, once all the crewmen are safe, I think the ship’s owner could be liable for any damages that followed.

3.     If a public highway is blocked, you can cut through adjacent land to get around the obstruction.

4.     It is not clear from the description here, but it is clear from the record of the case, that the plaintiff and the extortioner were not one and the same.  It does not seem at all just that you should substitute your safety for that of an innocent bystander.  The case is rather lengthy, but the defendant seems to get off scot-free because the court finds that the extortioner was the proximate cause of the harm to the plaintiff rather than the act of the defendant.  But didn’t the defendant have a duty to the plaintiff to warn him that a bomb was about to go off and that he should take cover?  I guess the court says that when you’re under duress, to act out of self-preservation and anything you do is either involuntary or can be otherwise excused.  I wonder if the court ruled the way it did because it was bribed by the wealthy defendant.

5.     Because tort law places such a high value on human life and personal safety, it would be inconsistent to allow any privilege for taking human life.


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