Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979)

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Author: U.S. Supreme Court

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Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979)

Per curiam opinion.

PER CURIAM.

The legal principles stated today in our opinion in Kaiser Aetna v. United States, ante p. 164, control the disposition of this case. Because of its posture here, however, we find it necessary to remand the case to the Court of Appeal of Louisiana. We think a brief statement of the facts and proceedings below will be helpful to an understanding of our disposition.

Respondent Vermilion Corp. leases a substantial amount of acreage, owned by Exxon Co., in the State of Louisiana. The land is traversed by a system of man-made canals, which are approximately 60 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The canals are both subject to tidal fluctuations and navigable in fact. They were constructed with private funds, and have been continuously in the control and possession of respondent Vermilion Corp., Exxon, and their predecessors, for a long period of time.

The canal system enters other naturally navigable waterways, and lies between the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the north and the Gulf of Mexico on the south. The canals are used for fishing and hunting and are also used by Exxon for oil and gas exploration and development activities. Respondent Vermilion subleases portions of the Exxon land to hunters, trappers, and fishers, and the right to use the canals is a part of the sublease agreement.

In order to control access to the land and the canals, over 400 "No Trespassing" signs are posted in various locations. Respondent Vermilion Corp. employs people to supervise activities in the canals and on the land, and on numerous occasions such people have prohibited strangers from entering and using the property in question.

The present controversy arises out of petitioners’ insistence that, notwithstanding Vermilion’s property rights, they were entitled as a matter of federal law -- without obtaining respondent’s permission -- to enter the property, travel the canals, and engage in commercial fishing and shrimping activities. Petitioners disregarded several written warnings issued by respondent; respondent then filed suit in the Louisiana state court seeking permanent injunctions against petitioners from trespassing on the land and making use of the canals.*

After commencement of the litigation, respondent moved for summary judgment, based on affidavits and a deposition, pursuant to the appropriate article of the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure. The trial court granted the motion and petitioners appealed to the Louisiana Court of Appeal. That court affirmed. 356 So.2d 651. The petition for certiorari here sets forth two questions for review. Pet. for Cert. 5. The first is, if a private citizen, on his privately held real property and with private funds, creates a system of artificial navigable waterways, in part by means of diversion or destruction of a preexisting natural navigable waterway, does the artificially developed waterway system become part of the "navigable waterways of the United States" and subject to the use of all citizens of the United States? The second is whether channels built on private property and with private funds, in such a manner that they ultimately join with other navigable waterways, are similarly open to use by all citizens of the United States. The difference between the two questions is obvious: the first posits the diversion or destruction of a preexisting natural navigable waterway in the process of construction of the private waterway, whereas the second does not. We think that our opinion in Kaiser Aetna v. United States, ante p. 164, adequately answers the second question presented for review and that the Louisiana Court of Appeal was correct in determining that, on such facts, no general right of use in the public arose by reason of the authority over navigation conferred upon Congress by the Commerce Clause of Art. I of the United States Constitution. But the Louisiana Court of Appeal also held that, even though the destruction or diversion of naturally navigable waterways occurred in the process of constructing the private waterways, the result would be no different. In so doing, the Court of Appeal relied on Ilhenny v. Broussard, 172 La. 895, 135 So. 669 (1931), a decision of the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The Court of Appeal, in the light of this decision, held that a factual dispute between the litigants in this case was immaterial, and that summary judgment was proper as a matter of law. That factual dispute is summarized by the Louisiana Court of Appeal in these words:

Defendants contend, however, that there is a fact in dispute which is genuinely material to this litigation, and that summary judgment was improper. They claim that plaintiff’s system of artificial waterways destroyed the navigability of surrounding natural waterways. They argue that this is material because, if true, the court could conclude that the system of artificial waterways was substituted for the preexisting natural system of navigable waterways. If such a conclusion were reached, the canals would not be private, and could not be privately controlled under state and federal law.

356 So.2d at 563.

While neither our opinion in Kaiser Aetna v. United States nor any of the principal cases relied on there deal with this specific fact situation, we do not think it can be said as a matter of law that, if petitioners proved their factual allegations, that proof would not constitute a defense under federal law to respondent’s prayer for injunctive relief in the trial court.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Louisiana Court of Appeal is affirmed with respect to the second question presented in the petition for certiorari, and vacated and remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion in Kaiser Aetna v. United States, decided today, with respect to the first question.

It is so ordered.

Per curiam opinion. (Footnotes)

* The Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit, which was the only Louisiana appellate court to render a written opinion on the question, stated in that opinion that no proof of damages was introduced in the trial court, although they had been prayed for in the complaint, and that no question of damages was raised on the appeal from the trial court to the appellate court.

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Chicago: U.S. Supreme Court, "Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979)," Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979) in 444 U.S. 206 444 U.S. 208–444 U.S. 210. Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PBPRTSULX8N3RKZ.

MLA: U.S. Supreme Court. "Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979)." Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979), in 444 U.S. 206, pp. 444 U.S. 208–444 U.S. 210. Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PBPRTSULX8N3RKZ.

Harvard: U.S. Supreme Court, 'Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979)' in Vaughn v. Vermilion Corp., 444 U.S. 206 (1979). cited in 1979, 444 U.S. 206, pp.444 U.S. 208–444 U.S. 210. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PBPRTSULX8N3RKZ.