NJ Supreme Court to Decide If Rescue Doctrine Extends to Dogs

In granting certification in Samolyk v. Berthe, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has agreed to consider whether the rescue doctrine, which in some instances permits an injured rescuer to maintain a cause of action against the person whose negligence placed a victim in imminent danger, extends to the rescue of a dog. The Appellate Division previously refused to extend the doctrine.

Facts of Samolyk v. Berthe

Plaintiff Ann Samolyk almost drowned when she tried to rescue a dog owned by defendants Ilona and Robert Destefanis that wandered into a canal or “lagoon” that separated plaintiff’s and defendants’ homes in Forked River. Ann’s husband John filed this complaint as her guardian ad litem (GAL) alleging defendants’ negligence and asserting their liability under the “rescue doctrine.”

According to court documents, Ann Samolyk heard someone calling out that their dog was in the canal and jumped in to help. Defendants were having dinner with their son and some friends when they realized their dog, Beau, a seventy-nine-pound boxer, was missing from their fenced-in yard. Defendants searched for Beau, learned 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. Defendants denied ever requesting the assistance of Ann or anyone else.

Defendants called 911 when their son alerted them to the fact that “a woman” needed assistance. Reports in the record reveal that by the time police arrived, Ann was unconscious on a “floating dock,” and the fire department was on scene performing CPR. Ann regained consciousness and was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Although no medical records were before the motion judge and none are before us, it is alleged that Ann suffered “debilitating brain damage” necessitating the appointment of John as her GAL.

During oral arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney conceded that absent application of the rescue doctrine, there was no “causal connection” between defendants’ actions and Ann’s decision to enter the canal. The rescue doctrine permits 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.

Issues Before the NJ Supreme Court in Samolyk v. Berthe

The trial court dismissed the suit after concluding that the rescue doctrine did not apply because the dog was property rather than a person. The plaintiff appealed.

While the Appellate Division acknowledged that “our courts have applied the rescue doctrine in many cases where the plaintiff was injured in attempting to rescue another person,” it noted that there are no reported cases from any New Jersey court that has applied the rescue doctrine to support a cause of action by a rescuer of property rather than a person.

The Appellate Division denied the plaintiff’s request to extend the doctrine. “While recognizing the merits of plaintiff’s contention that foreclosing application of the rescue doctrine in all cases involving imperiled property seems out-of-step with the majority of our sister states, we also acknowledge the valid points raised by defendants that mitigate against its wholesale adoption of the doctrine in all circumstances involving imperiled property,” the Appellate Division wrote.

The appeals court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court has never applied the doctrine to cases involving property. It also emphasized that its restraint is “particularly warranted when it comes to the adoption of a ‘new cause of action,’ or expansion of ‘established law.’” Accordingly, the Appellate Division declined the invitation to extend the rescue doctrine.

On October 18, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to consider the issue. The justices will decide: “Does the rescue doctrine, which in some instances permits an injured rescuer to maintain a cause of action against the person whose negligence placed a victim in imminent danger, extend to the rescue of a dog?”

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in the case. We encourage readers to check back for updates.

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