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Property Right and Tortious Wrong in Vincent v. Lake Erie
Issues in Legal Scholarship (2005)
  • Gregory C. Keating

Vincent v. Lake Erie has given rise to two enduring controversies. The first concerns the imposition of the duty of repair itself. Lake Erie acted reasonably in lashing its ship to Vincent's dock and damaging the dock. Why should justified conduct--doing the right thing--give rise to liability in tort? The second concerns the basis of the duty of reparation recognized by the case. Is it rooted in Vincent's property right to exclude Lake Erie, a right overriden by the urgency of Lake Erie's plight but perhaps possessed of enough residual pull to compel compensation? Or is it grounded not on Vincent's property right but on Lake Erie's tortious wrong? Or, third, is it rooted in ideas of unjust enrichment?

This article argues that Vincent's duty of reparation does not rest on Vincent’s right to exclude. Vincent's right to exclude is only a prima facie right, and it is extinguished by the privilege of private necessity. Lake Erie's duty of reparation rests, rather, on the wrongfulness of Lake Erie’s saving its ship at the cost of damaging Vincent’s dock, without making reparation for the harm that it has done. An ideal of fairness provides the moral basis for this judgment of wrongfulness. Conceptions of strict liability in tort and unjust enrichment in the law of restitution supply the principal legal bases for Vincent's duty of reparation.

An idea of unjust enrichment captures one aspect of the ideal of fairness at work in Vincent: Because the preexisting baseline of legal entitlement had pinned the lion’s share of risk of loss from the storm on Lake Erie, Lake Erie would be enriching itself unjustly if were to gain by shifting the cost of the storm onto Vincent's shoulders. Ideas of strict liability in tort express another aspect of the ideal of fairness that underpins Vincent: It is wrong for Vincent to suffer at Lake Erie’s hands simply because the infliction of injury on Vincent is to Lake Erie's advantage. The invocation of the Just Compensation clause makes explicit the link between the law of unjust enrichment’s focus on unjust gain and the law of torts’ focus on wrongful loss: Gain and loss are flip sides of the same coin and they should go hand in hand. It is only fair that Lake Erie should bear the costs as well as reap the benefits of its actions.

Implicit in this case for strict liability is a way of making peace with the claims of fault liability. Fault liability takes reasonableness of conduct as its touchstone, and sets out to reward conduct which does more good than harm. Strict liability in Vincent has no bone to pick with reasonable conduct. It does not seek to discourage reasonable conduct. It seeks, instead, to promote both reasonable conduct and “reasonable harm.” Strict liability in Vincent authorizes--privileges--Lake Erie's unconsented to entry onto Vincent's property, but conditions that entry on Lake Erie shouldering the costs of the harm wrought by its entry. It is only reasonable that Lake Erie--who profits from its use of Vincent's property--also bear the cost of the harm that is the price of its profits. Strict liability in Vincent criticizes fault liability only insofar as fault liability leaves loss unfairly distributed.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Gregory C. Keating, Property Right and Tortious Wrong in Vincent v. Lake Erie, Issues in Legal Scholarship, Art. 6 (2005).