In tort common law, the defense of necessity gives the State or an individual a privilege to take or use the property of another. A defendant typically invokes the defense of necessity only against the intentional torts of trespass to chattels, trespass to land, or conversion. The Latin phrase from common law is necessitas inducit privilege quod jura privata, “Necessity induces a privilege because of a private right.” A court will grant this privilege to a trespasser when the risk of harm to an individual or society is apparently and reasonably greater than the harm to the property. Unlike the privilege of self-defense, those who are harmed by individuals invoking the necessity privilege are usually free from any wrongdoing. Generally, an individual invoking this privilege is obligated to pay any actual damages caused in the use of the property but not punitive or nominal damages

Private necessity

Private necessity is the use of another’s property for private reasons. Well established doctrines in common law prevent a property owner from using force against an individual in a situation where the privilege of necessity would apply. While an individual may have a private necessity to use the land or property of another, that individual must compensate the owner for any damages caused. For example: A strong wind blows a parachuting skydiver off course from his intended landing zone. He must land in a nearby farmer’s field. The skydiver tramples on the farmer’s prized roses, and the farmer hits the skydiver on the head with a pitchfork. The skydiver can invoke the privilege of private necessity for trespassing in the farmer’s fields but will have to pay for the damage caused to the roses. The farmer will be liable for battery because the use of force in defense of property is not privileged against an individual who successfully claims private necessity.
In American law, the case most often cited to explain the privilege of private necessity is Vincent v. Lake Erie Transp. Co., 109 Minn. 456, 124 N.W. 221 (1910). Vincent v. Lake Erie Transportation Co. Facts

Defendant Lake Erie was at the dock of plaintiff Vincent to unload cargo from Reynolds, the steamship owned by the defendant. An unusually violent storm developed. Lake Erie was unable to leave the dock safely and deckhands for the steamship instead tied the Reynolds to the dock, continually changing ropes as they began to wear and break. A sudden fierce wind threw the ship against the dock significantly damaging the dock.

• Issue
Is compensation required when there is damage to another’s property due to a private necessity?

• Decision

(Judge O’Brien) Yes. A private necessity may require one to take or damage another’s property, but compensation is required. If the Reynolds had entered the harbor at the time the storm began, and the wind knocked her against the dock, this force of nature would not have allowed Vincent to recover. The defendant, Lake Erie, deliberately kept the Reynolds tied to the dock. If they had not done so, the ship could have been lost creating a far greater damage than what was caused to the dock. Although this was a prudent thing to do, Lake Erie is still liable to Vincent for the damage caused.

• Dissent
(Judge Lewis) One who constructs a dock and conducts business assumes a risk of damage that may occur from storms. For this reason, Judge Lewis did not agree with the majority and believed that Vincent had assumed the risk of damage caused by Lake Erie. To invoke the private necessity privilege, the defendant must have been actually threatened or have
reasonably thought that a significant harm were about to occur. The ruling in Vincent v. Lake Erie assures private citizens from a public policy stand point that they will be compensated for their loss. Vincent will be compensated for repairs and Lake Erie can rest assured that their ship will not sink.

Public necessity

Public necessity is the use of private property by a public official for a public reason. The potential harm
to society necessitates the destruction or use of private property for the greater good. The injured,
private individual does not always recover for the damage caused by the necessity. In American law, two
conflicting cases illustrate this point: Surocco v. Geary, 3 Cal. 69 (1853) and Wegner v. Milwaukee Mutual Ins. Co. 479 N.W.2d 38 (Minn 1991).

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