Common Law Rescue Doctrine Does Not Extend to Rescue of Property, as Opposed to People

Samolyk v. Berthe, 251 N.J. 732 (2022). As discussed here, this case involved a set of facts in which one of the plaintiffs jumped into a lagoon to rescue their neighbors’ dog. The plaintiff was injured in doing that, and she and her husband sued the neighbors for their alleged negligence in allowing the dog to get into the lagoon. On a dispositive motion, the Law Division ruled against plaintiffs because no New Jersey case had extended the common law rescue doctrine, which allows suit against a negligent party for injuries suffered by a rescuer of a person, to the rescue of property, such as animals. The Appellate Division affirmed. Today, in a unanimous opinion by Judge Fuentes, the Supreme Court also affirmed.

Judge Fuentes discussed the fact that the Restatement (Second) and Third, Torts had broadened the rescue doctrine to include rescue of property, and that a number of jurisdictions had followed that guidance. But at least one other state, Missouri, “unlike a majority of other jurisdictions,” has consistently declined to take that step. Judge Fuentes quoted a Missouri decision as saying that “[t]he policy basis of the distinction in treatment of rescuers of persons and rescuers of property seems “to rest upon that high regard in which the law holds human life and limb; whereas, when mere property is involved, one may not voluntarily subject another to greater liability than that which he seeks to avert.”

The Supreme Court today adopted essentially that view. “We are convinced that any attempt to reform the application of the rescue doctrine to include the protection of property, whether animate or inanimate, realty or chattel, must emanate from our innate instinct to protect human life. Notwithstanding the strong emotional attachment people may have to dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals, or the great significance some may attribute to family heirlooms, or works of art generally considered as irreplaceable parts of our cultural history, sound public policy cannot sanction expanding the rescue doctrine to imbue property with the same status and dignity uniquely conferred upon a human life.”

But the Court then added some dicta that offer a limited basis to extend the rescue doctrine. “We are also aware, however, that certain preemptive acts that appear to be driven by the protection of property are, at their core, adjuncts to the protection of human life and thus may give rise to a cause of action under the rescue doctrine. For example, consider a neighbor who reports a fire in a nearby house to the proper authorities, then attempts to squelch the fire based on a reasonable, good faith belief that children or other vulnerable inhabitants may be in immediate danger, or because it appears likely the fire may spread to other occupied properties. Under those circumstances, if the fire was negligently started, the neighbor may have a cognizable basis to invoke the rescue doctrine to recover damages for injuries caused by the preemptive measures taken to limit the intensity of the fire, even if it is later determined there was no actual risk to human life because the house was unoccupied.”

But Judge Fuentes noted that those were not the facts of today’s case. Plaintiff’s actions, he said, “were based solely on her perception of danger to the dog’s life,” so her case could not proceed. How often the scenario in the Court’s dicta can be shown remains to be seen.

Our Supreme Court frequently follows the Restatements. Today’s decision shows that the Court does not always take that route. The Court often acts to expand the common law, but today it elected not to do so. The Court quoted the famous words of Judge Cardozo that “[d]anger invites rescue.” But the Court limited that idea to danger that threatens people, adhering to the original boundary of the rescue doctrine.