Animal Law

Woman who jumped into canal to save dog can't sue under rescue doctrine, top state court rules

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New Jersey gavel

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A woman who suffered neurological and cognitive injuries after jumping into a canal to save a dog can’t recover damages from its owners under the rescue doctrine, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled in a unanimous decision.

The state supreme court ruled Monday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Ann Samolyk by her husband as guardian ad litem. The suit alleges that the dog’s owners negligently allowed their dog to fall or jump into the canal, prompting Samolyk to jump or dive into the water to save the animal from drowning.

The son of the dog’s owners and a family friend rescued the dog. Samolyk was found unconscious on a floating dock.

The suit sought damages for Samolyk’s injuries and for her husband’s loss of companionship.

In its June 13 opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court refused to extend the doctrine to allow damages for attempts to rescue property “in whatever form.” Recovery should only be allowed, the state supreme court said, in settings in which the plaintiff has acted to shield a 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,” the New Jersey Supreme Court said.

Some states—possibly a majority—have taken a contrary position, as has the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which allows recovery unless the plaintiff’s effort is unreasonable.

But the New Jersey Supreme Court said it would allow recovery for protection of property only in a narrow circumstance—an act that appears to be driven by a desire to shield property that is actually intended to protect humans.

The state supreme court cited an example—an attempt to put out a fire at a neighbor’s home in good faith but a mistaken belief that vulnerable inhabitants are in danger.

“Following that line of reasoning,” the New Jersey Supreme Court said, “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.”

The case is Samolyk v. Berthe.

The opinion author was Judge Jose L. Fuentes, an appellate judge temporarily sitting on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Hat tip to the Legal Profession Blog, which had highlights from the opinion, and Courthouse News Service, which had coverage.

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