Great analysis of the “Rescue Doctrine” in a ballooning case from South Dakota

The rescue doctrine was created so that the person causing the injury or putting the plaintiff in peril also is responsible for any rescuer of the plaintiff.

Thompson v. Summers, 1997 SD 103; 567 N.W.2d 387; 1997 S.D. LEXIS 103

State: South Dakota, Supreme Court of South Dakota

Plaintiff: Marvin Thompson

Defendant: Charles Summers

Plaintiff Claims: General negligence claims

Defendant Defenses: no duty

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1997

This is an interesting case that never fully played out so we don’t know the outcome of the case. A balloonist, eventual defendant, was teaching a student to fly and was attempting to land. Another balloon instructor on the ground, who had taught the instructor in the balloon, thought the landing was not going to be good and attempted to help with the landing.

The balloonist on the ground thought the balloon was going to hit high-voltage power lines. As the balloon got lower to the ground, the balloonist on the ground, the plaintiff, ran over and grabbed the balloon in an attempt to stop the balloon. The balloon hit the power lines and the plaintiff, rescuer, suffered burns over 60% of his body. The two people in the balloon were not injured.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for not employing the rip cord, which opens the balloon to release the hot air. The plaintiff argued failing to employ the rip cord was negligence. (The obvious issue here is what duty was owed by the balloonist to the plaintiff on the ground, other than to not land on him.)

This is confusing, in that failing to protect yourself from injury is a negligent act to one who is injured rescuing you? It is difficult to understand in this case the liability owed to an intervener for your failure to act. Stated another way, your liability because the intervener expected you to act in a certain way?

South Dakota only has one appellate court, the South Dakota Supreme Court. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, and the plaintiff appealed to the supreme court of South Dakota.

The trial court dismissed the complaint on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Meaning this case was dismissed prior to any discovery or even an answer from the defendant. Therefore, when the appellate court reviews the issues, it must do so to look for any allegations by the plaintiff that may support a claim. This analysis is not whether a claim was supported or could be won in court, just whether or not it, there was any possibly that the case could be.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court started its analysis by looking at the rescue doctrine. The rescue doctrine is an odd, but arguably valid legal argument. If you attempt to assist someone who needs rescued, are injured during that assistance, the person who caused the accident is also responsible for your injuries.

This theory provides that one who, through negligence, jeopardizes the safety of another, may be held liable for injuries sustained by a “rescuer” who attempts to save the other from injury.

A rescuer’s right of action against the initial negligent actor rests upon the view that one who imperils another at a place where there may be bystanders, must take into account the chance that some bystander will yield to the impulse to save life or even property from destruction and will attempt a rescue; negligence which creates peril invites rescue and, should the rescuer be hurt in the process, the tortfeasor will be held liable not only to the primary victim, but to the rescuer as well.

There is an argument that the rescue doctrine was not properly raised at the trial court level and a variation of the rescue doctrine   a dissenting opinion. The dissenting opinion agreed with the outcome of the majority, but felt the analysis of the rescue doctrine was premature. Either way, the court looked at the argument and found it applied to this case.

One argument made by the defendant was that he could not be liable, unless he requested the assistance or at least knew about the assistance.

Summers claims that he would have had to request Thompson’s assistance to establish a duty under these circumstances. At the very least, he argues, Summers must have been aware of Thompson’s presence. At oral argument, counsel for Summers went so far as to state there must be a “relationship” between the plaintiff and the defendant before a duty can be established. On the contrary, it is foreseeability of injury to another, not a relationship with another, which is a prerequisite to establishing a duty necessary to sustain a negligence cause of action. See SDCL 20-9-1, wherein the Legislature codified the common law of negligence: “Every person is responsible for injury to the person, property, or rights of another caused by his willful acts or caused by his want of ordinary care or skill, subject in the latter cases to the defense of contributory negligence.”

The court did not buy this argument. “As indicated above, “negligence which creates peril invites rescue and, should the rescuer be hurt in the process, the tortfeasor will be held liable not only to the primary victim, but to the rescuer as well

Not only, that unconscious victims or rescuers the victim does not know about would leave rescuers risking their cost of their own injuries.

Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief. The law does not ignore these reactions of the mind in tracing conduct to its consequences. It recognizes them as normal. It places their effects within the range of the natural and probable. The wrong that imperils life is a wrong to the imperiled victim; it is a wrong also to his rescuer.

The court also looked at other theories how the plaintiff’s claim may have merit.

One was the argument that the defendant breached federal regulations created by the Federal Aviation Administration. Breaching a statute creates a negligence per se action. “This court has consistently held that “an unexcused violation of a statute enacted to promote safety constitutes negligence per se.”

Whether Summers violated one or more of these statutes and regulations, and if so, whether the violation was the proximate cause of Thompson’s injuries constitutes a question for the factfinder.

However, here again, any breach of an FAA regulation would inure to the passenger, not the rescuer; I would think? However it was held to support the claim of the plaintiff/rescuer here.

However, the court seemed to circle back to that argument when it stated:

With regard to the proximate cause issue, this court has recognized that the mere violation of a statute is insufficient to support an action for damages. Rather, a plaintiff must show that the violation of a statutory duty was the proximate cause of his injury to support a recovery in negligence.

The court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings and closed with this summary.

Negligence is the breach of a legal duty imposed by statute or common law.” Thompson clearly outlined a claim under a common-law negligence theory. (“The three necessary elements of actionable negligence are: (1) A duty on the part of the defendant; (2) a failure to perform that duty; and (3) an injury to the plaintiff resulting from such a failure.”). The rescue doctrine is part of the common law of negligence.

So Now What?

The biggest issue which is confusing is the original claim must be based on a negligent act which never occurred to the possible plaintiff, just the defendant. How can the defendant be liable for his own rescue? What negligent act on the part of the defendant created the liability to create the liability for the rescuer?

Where the rescue doctrine comes into play in the outdoor recreation and adventure travel field that creates problems is when other guests attempt to help. Whenever someone is in a jam, everyone wants to help, and you may need everyone’s help. If another guest is injured when helping, and you were the legally the cause of the original accident, you could be liable for the guests who helped also.

Does that mean guests cannot help? No, many times you may need the guests to assist in rescuing someone. Just make sure they know their job, are doing it in a safe way and keep your eyes on them.

Will a release work to stop the claims of the injured guest/rescuer? I have no idea, maybe, but no court that I know of has ever looked at the issue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law              James H. Moss

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