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What is the Rescue Doctrine?

If you put yourself in harm’s way, is it possible that you can be held liable if any harm comes to those people who come to your rescue?

The rescue doctrine is a legal rule that is a part of tort law. It states that if a person places himself in a situation that he may need to be rescued (especially one that is dangerous), then the person is liable for harm that happens to individuals who come to the rescue or aid. In other words, if you put yourself in a situation that is dangerous simply because you are not thinking clearly or being negligent and then you need help getting out of that situation, the people who help you can sue you if they are injured while helping you.

For example, a recent case in Southern California involved a young man who broke his spine after falling off a cliff while he was looking for a pair of lost hikers. He then sued the teenage hikers for his fall and settled for a six figure sum with one of the teens, and an undisclosed amount with the other.

Another example involving the rescue doctrine might be, if a person steps in to help someone from injury by an aggressive dog and is injured in the process, the owner of the animal is responsible. In such a case, the “rescuer” or person coming to someone’s aid is willingly putting themselves into harm’s way for the sake of helping others. The key to whether or not there is a case is in the negligence. Is the injury foreseeable and is it also foreseeable that the rescuer could be injured in the act? If so, the person who was initially in harm’s way can be held liable.

These cases may not win a popularity contest with the public, since most people see it as someone voluntarily taking the action to rescue. However, the law is the law, and as such, you need to take appropriate cautions to avoid adding insult (and a financial burden) to your injuries.

Jason writes for NW Injury Law Center in Vancouver, WA.

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