New Jersey Supreme Court holds the Rescue Doctrine only applies to rescuing people and not property unless rescuing the property saves people.

Family sues after wife is injured attempting to rescue neighbor’s dog. Supreme court holds rescuing a dog does not qualify under the rescue doctrine.

Samolyk v. Berthe (N.J. 2022)

State: New Jersey; Supreme Court of New Jersey

Plaintiff: Ann Samolyk and John Samolyk

Defendant: Dorothy Berthe, III, Defendant, and Ilona Destefanis and Robert Destefanis

Plaintiff Claims: Rescue Doctrine

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Defendants

Year: 2022


The rescue doctrine in New Jersey can only be used to recover for injuries sustained when rescuing a person. Rescuing property, in this case a dog, does not apply.


This matter arises from injuries sustained by plaintiff Ann Samolyk while trying to rescue a dog owned by defendants Ilona and Robert DeStefanis. Ann’s[1] husband, John Samolyk, filed a civil action against defendants, as Ann’s guardian ad litem, alleging defendants were liable under the rescue doctrine by negligently allowing their dog to fall or jump into the canal that borders their property, prompting Ann to dive into the water to prevent the dog from drowning. The complaint also included a per quod claim by John seeking compensation for any loss or impairment of his spouse’s services, society, and companionship due to injuries Ann sustained as a proximate result of defendants’ negligence.

The parties are neighbors in Forked River, an unincorporated bayfront community within Lacey Township. Their homes are situated on a canal. In the evening of July 13, 2017, defendants’ dog fell or jumped into the canal that snakes around the rear area of this shore community. Ann claimed she heard someone calling for help to rescue their dog that had fallen into the canal.[2] A report filed by a Lacey police officer describes the incident as “a report of a dog swimming in the lagoon.” The report states that Ann “entered the lagoon to rescue the dog.” The dog “was removed from the lagoon,” without any apparent harm, by defendants’ son and a family friend. Regrettably, Ann was found “unconscious on a floating dock.” In response to defendants’ interrogatories, plaintiffs allege Ann sustained neurological and cognitive injuries as a result of the incident.

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

The basic claim of the plaintiff was

“Plaintiffs’ counsel argued that defendants “invited the rescue because the dog was in peril, . . . [and Ann] would not [have] jump[ed] in the lagoon and [nearly] drown[ed] but for the dog being in there and people screaming about having to rescue the dog.”

The rescue doctrine allows an injured rescuer to recover damages from the person who placed another in peril or placed themselves in peril.

The rescue doctrine established in Wagner was originally limited to situations “where three persons are involved, i.e., one party by his culpable act has placed another person in a position of imminent peril which invites a third person, the rescuing plaintiff, to come to his aid.” New York courts later expanded the rescue doctrine “to encompass a two-party situation where the culpable party has placed himself in a perilous position which invites rescue.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court found the claims of the plaintiff wanted to expand the rescue doctrine to the injuries received from rescuing property.

In this appeal, we are asked to expand the scope of the rescue doctrine to include those who voluntarily choose to expose themselves to significant danger in an effort to safeguard the property of another. We decline to modify the rescue doctrine to incorporate such a far-reaching departure from the fundamental principles embedded in Wagner.

Several states have expanded the rescue doctrine to cover property; however, the NJ Supreme Court declined to extend the doctrine in New Jersey. Unless the property being rescued would result in saving a human life, the rescue doctrine could not be used to recover for injuries of the rescuer.

Against this analytical backdrop, we decline to expand the rescue doctrine to include injuries sustained to protect property, except in settings in which the plaintiff has acted to shield human life.

The court then wrote an example of how the rescue doctrine could be used in a case like this.

Following that line of reasoning, plaintiffs’ cause of action would have survived a motion for summary judgment had she jumped into the canal after defendants’ dog as a simultaneous reaction to seeing a child of tender years running after the animal and quickly approaching the edge of the dock. In that hypothetical situation, Ann’s actions to protect the child from imminent danger by rescuing the dog may have been reasonable and could therefore have served as the basis for a cognizable cause of action under the rescue doctrine.

Here the sole cause of the plaintiff’s injuries came from her desire to rescue property, a dog.

By contrast, the uncontested evidence here shows that Ann’s actions were based solely on her perception of danger to the dog’s life. These nuanced distinctions are intended to acknowledge and reaffirm the public policy underpinning the rescue doctrine in our state, to wit, the protection of human life. Thus, plaintiffs’ complaint was properly dismissed because Ann’s decision to jump into the canal to save the dog’s life does not give rise to a cognizable claim under the rescue doctrine.

So Now What?

The rescue doctrine started out, as stated above that someone who rescued someone who had been placed in peril by another could recover for their injuries from the party at fault, the party that placed the person in peril.

The doctrine has expanded from what once was an attempt to punish those who created problems and reward those who solved the problem to providing money to someone who tried to help.

The rescue doctrine does not apply to commercial guides and outfitters because they have a higher duty to keep their customers safe and as such, no matter how the person came to be in peril; it is the fault of the outfitter or guide and their responsibility to rescue them.

The rescue doctrine is interpreted differently in every state, so make sure you understand it before you attempt to recover for your injuries.

Other cases that talk about the Rescue Doctrine see:

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

Jim Moss is an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the outdoor recreation community. He represents guides, guide services, outfitters both as businesses and individuals and the products they use for their business. He has defended Mt. Everest guide services, summer camps, climbing rope manufacturers; avalanche beacon manufactures and many more manufacturers and outdoor industries. Contact Jim at

Jim is the author or co-author of six books about the legal issues in the outdoor recreation world; the latest is Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law.

To see Jim’s complete bio go here and to see his CV you can find it here.

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