Ploof v. Putnam

81 Vt. 471, 71 A. 188 (1908)

Quick Summary

Ploof (plaintiff) sought refuge by mooring his boat to Putnam’s (defendant) dock during a storm. When Putnam’s servant untied the boat, it was destroyed and Ploof’s family was injured. Ploof sued for damages.

The issue was whether emergency necessity justified Ploof’s actions and if Putnam was liable for the resulting harm.

The court concluded that necessity did justify Ploof’s actions and affirmed the trial court’s judgment in his favor due to the circumstances of preserving life.

Facts of the Case

Ploof (plaintiff) was sailing with his family on Lake Champlain when a violent storm emerged, threatening their safety. In an act of emergency, Ploof anchored his boat to a dock owned by Putnam (defendant) to prevent destruction and potential loss of life.

Putnam, through his servant, untied the boat, resulting in its destruction and injuries to Ploof and his family. Ploof sued Putnam for damages, arguing that the act of tying the boat to the dock was justified by necessity.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Ploof brought suit against Putnam for damages based on injuries and destruction of property.
  2. The trial court entered judgment for Ploof.
  3. Putnam appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Vermont.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the doctrine of necessity justifies Ploof’s use of Putnam’s dock to moor his sloop during a tempest and whether Putnam is liable for damages after unmooring the sloop.

Rule of Law

Necessity can justify interference with another’s property to preserve human life or prevent bodily harm, even if such actions would typically constitute trespass.

Reasoning and Analysis

The court acknowledged that necessity can justify certain acts that would otherwise be considered trespasses, especially when such acts are necessary to preserve human life or avoid serious harm. The court found that Ploof’s action of mooring to Putnam’s dock was compelled by a violent storm, which posed a significant threat to himself and his family.

It was determined that the details creating this necessity were matters of proof rather than pleading. Furthermore, the court interpreted the servant’s actions as within the scope of his employment, acting on behalf of Putnam.


The Supreme Court of Vermont affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Ploof.

Key Takeaways

  1. Necessity can justify what would otherwise be trespass if it is done to preserve human life or prevent serious harm.
  2. The court must consider the details of the situation that created the necessity as matters of proof rather than matters needing detailed pleading.
  3. An individual’s actions in an emergency can be justified under the doctrine of necessity, imposing liability on a property owner who interferes with such necessary actions.

Relevant FAQs of this case

In what scenarios is the necessity defense applicable outside of property law?

The necessity defense applies when an individual breaks the law to prevent a more significant harm. This is often seen in emergency medical situations, where, for instance, a person may exceed legal speed limits while transporting someone in critical condition to the hospital. Although breaking the speed limit is illegal, the act can be justified if it’s the only option to save a life.

  • For example: A passerby breaks a car window to save a child suffering from heatstroke inside a locked vehicle on a hot day.

How does liability for damages change under the doctrine of necessity?

Under the doctrine of necessity, an individual who causes damage to another’s property while trying to prevent serious harm may not be held liable for those damages. The balancing act is between the harm avoided and the damage caused; if the harm avoided is significantly greater, liability may be negated.

  • For example: During a wildfire, firefighters commandeer private water tanks from nearby properties to control the fire. The owners cannot claim damages as the public benefit outweighs individual loss.

What is the relevance of intent in establishing necessity as a defense?

Intent is crucial; the necessity defense typically requires that the action taken must have been intended solely to avoid a greater harm. There must be no reasonable alternative and no malicious or reckless disregard for the property owner’s interests.

  • For example: A hiker trapped in a blizzard breaks into an unoccupied cabin for shelter. If staying outside meant certain death, and there was no alternative refuge, her intent to survive justifies breaking in.
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