The “Rescue Doctrine” – A Little Known Legal Concept

Published on Jun 29, 2009 at 1:31 pm in General Blogs.

In Wagner v. International Railway, 232 N.Y. 176, 133 N.E. 437 (1921), the learned jurist Benjamin Cardozo first espoused that “danger invites rescue.” Many state appellate courts have since followed this principle of law and hold that a rescuer who suffers injuries during an attempt to rescue a person who is placed in a position of peril as the result of the negligence of another may recover from that person all damages sustained during the rescue.

In addition, it is almost universally accepted in state and federal courts throughout the United States that one who witnesses a person in imminent or immediate peril though the negligence of another cannot be charged with contributory negligence as a matter of law, in risking his or her own life or serious injury, in attempt to effect a rescue, provided the rescue was not undertaken carelessly or recklessly. One exception to this general rule of recovery is that professional first responders such a firefighters and police officers may not recover for injuries sustained in the course of undertaking a rescue.

The person in need of rescue may also be held responsible in the event he or she negligently causes the need for their own rescue.

The attorneys at Belsky & Horowitz, LLC have successfully used the rescue doctrine to obtain settlements in a variety of cases. In one such case, a motorist negligently used his car jack to prop his vehicle up to perform certain repairs on the side of the highway. The jack collapsed, and the weight of the vehicle crushed the motorist. A bystander witnessed the event, and attempted, albeit futilely, to lift the vehicle off the motorist. As a result, the rescuer sustained multiple disc herniations and recovered a confidential settlement for injuries sustained during the rescue attempt. The motorist survived.

Many experienced lawyers are unaware of the “rescue doctrine” which is a long standing yet little used legal concept. For more information on this doctrine, the reader may wish to consider the following additional legal authorities:

White v. State, No. 1960, Md. Ct. Spec. Appeal (2008);

Flowers v. Rock Creek Terrace, 308 Md. 432 (1987);

Comment, Restitutionary Recovery for Rescuers of Human Life, 74 Cal. L. Rev. 85 (1986)

Terrence Kiley, Modern Tort Liability: Recovery in the ’90s (1990).



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