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New Jersey Rescue Doctrine Does Not Apply To Rescue Of Pet Owned By Defendants

By on June 4, 2021 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Ann Samolyk almost drowned when she tried to rescue a dog owned by defendants Ilona and Robert Destefinis that had wandered into a canal between their respective homes in Forked River, New Jersey.  After trying to rescue the dog, Ann was found unconscious on a “floating dock” and suffered “debilitating brain damage.” In the case of Samolyk v. Berthe, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1046 (App. Div. June 2, 2021), the issue was whether the plaintiff could utilize the “rescue doctrine” to be able to sue the defendants for negligence in failing to restrain their pet from jumping into the canal, and, hence, causing Ann’s injuries when she tried to rescue their pet.

One evening, Ann heard someone calling out that their dog was in the canal and needed help and jumped in.  Defendants were having dinner with their son and some friends when they realized that their dog, Beau, was missing from their fenced in yard.  The defendants searched for Beau and learned that he had fallen or jumped into the canal, walked into the backyard of a neighbor two doors away, and were able to pull the dog out of the water.  The defendants denied ever requesting the assistance of Ann in helping to rescue their dog.

Defendants called 911 when their son alerted them to the fact that “a woman” needed help.  According to the record, by the time the police arrived, Ann was unconscious on a “floating dock” and the fire department was performing CPR.  She regained consciousness and was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital.  It is alleged that Ann suffered debilitating brain damage, which necessitated the appointment of her husband as her Guardian ad Litem.

Under the rescue doctrine, it would permit the “injured rescuer to maintain a cause of action against the one whose negligence placed the victim in imminent danger, because it is that negligence that has given rise to the intervention of the rescuer.”  The plaintiff conceded that without the application of the rescue doctrine, there was no causal connection between the defendants’ actions and Ann’s decision to enter the canal.  The plaintiff was not making an argument that the defendants owed a duty to Ann under the circumstances.

At the trial court level, the trial judge noted that the rescue doctrine, which was critical to the plaintiff’s cause of action, had never been extended in New Jersey to the rescue of another’s property, real or personal.  The trial judge concluded that the rescue doctrine does not apply because the dog was property, rather than a person. Hence, he dismissed the lawsuit by summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff had no cause of action against the defendants. This dismissal was appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division noted that “our courts have applied the rescue doctrine in many cases where the plaintiff was injured in attempting to rescue another person.”  Plaintiff conceded that there was no reported case from any New Jersey court that has applied the rescue doctrine to support a cause of action by a rescuer of property of the defendant, which through his negligence, placed the property in peril. 

The Appellate Division considered whether the rescue doctrine should be limited to the rescue of another human being or whether it should be extended to the rescue of a property of another.  After noting case law in other states which have permitted the rescue doctrine in circumstances involving imperiled property, the Appellate Division stated that the Supreme Court of New Jersey has never applied the doctrine to cases involving imperiled property.  Thus, it felt constrained in adopting a “new cause of action.”  Therefore, the Court declined plaintiff’s invitation to extend the rescue doctrine under the facts of this case.  According, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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