Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The Case for Reform of the Rescue Doctrine

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The Case for Reform of the Rescue Doctrine

Article excerpt


Throughout its history, American law has viewed rescuers in a peculiar and unfavorable light. Under traditional common-law rules, individuals have no duty to come to the aid of others trapped in dangerous situations.1 Those who attempt to render help can face severe legal and financial consequences. Historically, individuals attempting to aid others exposed themselves to liability for their actions during a rescue attempt2 and the law left them without a remedy if they suffered injury.3 During the twentieth century, courts and legislatures took several steps to help ease this harsh treatment of rescuers, but one glaring hole remains-the lack of a consistent system to compensate rescuers who are injured while aiding or attempting to aid other people. This Comment will argue that this situation is both morally reprehensible and economically inefficient, and will propose that an insurance system be created to compensate injured rescuers for their losses.

The common-law rules pertaining to rescuers have long been a subject of debate. Legal scholars have written extensively on both the "no-duty-torescue" rule4 and rescuers' exposure to liability.5 Americans have freIMAGE FORMULA4

quently rushed to the aid of others in peril and both courts and legislatures have expressed a desire to praise, not penalize, this behavior. Both legislatures and courts have undertaken steps to improve the legal status of people who attempt rescues,7 but these measures do not adequately address the crucial problem that a person injured while performing a rescue will often be unable to be compensated for his injuries.

The law has attempted to deal with this problem through a piecemeal assortment of exceptions and legal fictions. As this Comment will discuss, the "rescue doctrine," which is the primary method under which injured rescuers can attempt to recover their losses, both distorts traditional tort doctrines and fails to provide a consistent method for an injured rescuer to obtain relief This Comment will propose that cases involving injured rescuers should be removed from the realm of tort law entirely. In place of tort remedies, a system of "rescue insurance" should be created. Under this proposal, injured rescuers will no longer be required to turn to the courts to seek recovery for their injuries, but instead will be able to recover compensatory damages under either a renter's or homeowner's insurance policy. An insurance system will create a more uniform method of compensation, and will not force the rescuer to bear all of the costs of an action that benefits other members of the community. People, for moral or other reasons, often spring into action when they see their fellow citizens in danger.8 The law should respect these courageous motives and encourage them because they so greatly benefit society.

Before proceeding further, it will be useful to define the term "rescue IMAGE FORMULA6

doctrine." Broadly stated, the doctrine (1) permits an injured rescuer to recover from a defendant when the defendant's negligent actions caused someone to be placed in a position of peril and (2) prevents a defendant from raising a contributory or comparative negligence defense against a claim brought by an injured rescuer unless the rescue attempt was reckless.9 The defendant in an action under the rescue doctrine can be either the imperiled victim, if that person negligently endangered himself,10 or a third party who created the dangerous situation necessitating the rescue.11 A definition provided by Chief Judge Felton of the Georgia Court of Appeals is typical of that used in many states:

Where a defendant's negligent act, of commission or omission, has created a condition or situation which involves urgent and imminent peril and danger, to life or property, of himself or of others, those acts of negligence are also negligence in relationship to all others who, in the exercise of ordinary care for their own safety under the circumstances, short of rashness and recklessness, may attempt, successfully or otherwise, to rescue such endangered life or property, by any means reasonably appropriate to the purpose . …

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