The Rescue Doctrine

By: Roger D. Horgan

First responders like police, fire, and EMS crew’s respond to emergencies, so do ordinary citizens, often at great personal risk. What happens when these first responders are injured? Typically, their remedies are limited to workers compensation and health insurance. However, when the emergency is created by someone’s negligence, the first responders are permitted to recover damages from that negligent party.

If a rescuer responds to an auto accident caused by the negligence of one of the drivers, and is injured when one of the vehicles explodes, the rescuer will be able to recover damages from the negligent driver. It is reasonable to anticipate that there will be rescue efforts made following an accident caused by the negligence of a driver. It is only right that the person who created the emergency be held liable for damages sustained by those responding to the emergency.

However, there are limits to everything, including the rescue doctrine. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court case known as Bole v. Erie Ins. Exch., 616 Pa. 479, 50 A.3d 1256 (Pa. 2012) demonstrates those limits. The court held that the negligent party would be responsible for all reasonably anticipated dangers to rescuers, but not for dangers that were so unusual that they could not have been reasonably anticipated. In this case, Ronald Bole, a volunteer firefighter, was seriously injured when a bridge on his own property collapsed as he was driving to the firehouse to respond to an accident caused by a negligent driver. He intended to go first to the firehouse and then to the accident scene. The Court found that the collapse of the bridge on Mr. Bole’s own property was so unusual, so unexpected, and so remote from the accident itself that it had to be considered to be a “superseding cause” for which the negligent driver could not be held responsible.

The Court explained, “The rescue doctrine may allow recovery if the rescuer was struck by a car while driving to the scene, for that is reasonably foreseeable — it would not allow recovery if the rescuer was struck by a meteor as that is not reasonably foreseeable.”

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