Ploof v. Putnam – Case Brief
Ploof v. Putnam, 81 Vt. 471, 71 A. 188 (1908).
Facts: Putnam (D) owned an island with a dock. Ploof (P) and his family were sailing when a storm forced them to moor at Putnam’s dock. Putnam’s servant set the boat free and the boat wrecked against the land destroying the boat and resulting in injury to Ploof and his family.
P sued for trespass on the grounds that D’s servant forcibly and intentionally unmoored the sloop. P also sued on the grounds that D through his servant had a duty to permit P to moor his sloop at the dock and to permit it to remain until the storm had passed. D demurred to both counts, claiming that P could have moored his boat somewhere else. At trial the court entered judgment in favor of P and D appealed.
Issue: Can a party lawfully trespass if it is out of private necessity?
Holding and Rule: Yes. The court noted that there are many cases in which necessity will justify entries on land, and that the doctrine applies with special force to the preservation of human life. For example, if a dog continues onto another’s property after he drives sheep off his property; or if a traveler trespasses on another’s land because the road is blocked. One may sacrifice the personal property of another to save his life or the life of another. Entry upon land to save goods which are in danger of being lost or destroyed by water or fire is not a trespass.
Disposition: Judgment in favor of P affirmed.
Notes: The cost to D of letting P moor his boat was much less than cost of refusing him. In addition to the cost of repairing the dock, D is now responsible for P and his family’s injuries and the damage to his boat. Courts will usually enforce property rights by making trespassers liable, but when transaction costs are high property rights are frequently ignored. If D’s servant had allowed the boat to stay moored, P would have been responsible for any damage to the dock. Even though one can use someone else’s property in order to protect themselves, they are still liable for damage done to the property. Private necessity is therefore an incomplete privilege.