A Capehart Scatchard Blog

New Jersey Supreme Court Refuses to Extend the Rescue Doctrine to Include Rescue of Animal

By on July 8, 2022 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

By: Erika Vasant, Law Clerk
Editor: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

In July of 2017, plaintiff Ann Samolyk injured herself when she jumped in a canal in an effort to save her neighbor defendant’s dog from drowning. In doing so, she alleged that she sustained neurological and cognitive injuries when rescuing the dog. The issue in the New Jersey Supreme Court case of Samolyk v. Berthe, 2022 N.J. LEXIS 515 (June 13, 2022),was whether or not the Court should expand the parameters of the rescue doctrine to allow recovery for damages sustained when rescuing a dog, as opposed to the traditional endangered human life.

The parties’ homes were stationed near a canal that bordered the shore community. The evening the injury occurred, Ann claimed to have heard someone call for help to rescue their dog that had fallen into the canal. Eventually, the dog was removed from the canal by the defendants’ son, but Ann was found lying unconscious. Ann’s husband, John Samolyk, filed a civil action against the defendants for negligently letting their dog to fall into the canal, prompting his wife to jump in and save the dog from drowning.

This case was first heard by the Law Division judge who agreed with the defendants’ main argument that there were no New Jersey courts that applied the rescue doctrine to property. Likewise, the judge emphasized his lack of authority to dictate what measure of property is justified in risking a human life.

The Appellate Division also addressed the same issue in another case, and came to the same conclusion. However, the opinion did note how the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 472 (Am. Law Inst. 1965) extended the rescue doctrine to property.

Plaintiffs argued that the Supreme Court of New Jersey should adopt this view for the case at hand. In opposition, defendants reiterated that the Restatement was the minority viewpoint, and that New Jersey courts have solely applied the rescue doctrine to endangered human life, not property.

In this appeal, the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed the expansion of the rescue doctrine to property. In its reasoning, the Court first referenced Judge Cardozo’s general description of the rescue doctrine from Wagner where he stated: “…The state that leaves an opening in a bridge is liable to the child that falls into the stream, but liable also to the parent who plunges to its aid.” Wagner v. International R. Co., 232 N.Y. 176, 180 (N.Y. 1991). The court went on to acknowledge that the rescue doctrine may also be applied in a two-party situation, in addition to three parties. In other similar cases heard by this court, it was stressed that the point of the rescue doctrine was to provide recovery to an injured party as a result of another party negligently placing themselves in danger. Provenzo v. Sam, 23 N.Y.2d 256, 260 (N.Y. 1968).

Furthermore, the Court noted how the rescue doctrine is centered on the basic tort concepts of duty and foreseeability. As the Second Restatement explains, an actor is liable “where the conduct of the actor has created a danger only to himself, if at the time of such conduct he should reasonably anticipate that others might attempt to rescue him from his self-created peril, and sustain harm in doing so.” (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 445 cmt. d) (Am. Law Inst. 1965).

Ultimately, the Supreme Court of New Jersey declined to expand the rescue doctrine to provide damages for any injuries received during the rescuing of property. The Court instead adopted the majority view, but added to the rationale by clarifying that the doctrine may extend to damages for injuries sustained if the rescuer was acting to save human life, and coincidentally saved the property. Had the plaintiff jumped in the canal to save a child’s life for example, and unintentionally ended up saving the dog’s life, then any injuries sustained in doing so would be recoverable.

Essentially, the Court reasoned that extending the same concern for human life to property would violate public policy. Specifically, the Court qualified their reasoning through Justice Cardozo’s description of how all human life is equally precious, but the same calculation cannot be applied to subjective pieces of property.

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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 30 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 2020-2023, 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.

*No aspect of this advertisement has been submitted to or approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

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