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DC’s highest court allows people who are injured while attempting to rescue another to sue the person who caused the original danger

In a decision released on July 23, 2015, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that a person who suffers injuries while trying to rescue another person can sue the person/company who caused the original danger.  It works like this:  say Joe negligently crashes his car into Linda’s car and as a result Linda is trapped inside her car.  Hero Dave comes along and rescues Linda from her car but during the process breaks his arm.  Under the “rescue doctrine,” Hero Dave can sue Joe for his injuries.  The D.C. Court of Appeals went even further, holding that if the rescuer is a family member of the person who is trapped, the rescuer can recover for emotional damages even without physical damages as long as he was in an area where the negligence occurred, called the “zone of danger.”

The case is called DeStefano v. Children’s National Medical Center, No. 13-CV-679, 693, 694.  The facts of the case help explain the doctrine.  Ms. DeStefano was in a hospital parking garage with her children.  Her 6 year old son fell 25 feet down through an uncovered vent, suffering severe injuries.  Ms. DeStefano rushed over to the vent and tried to rescue her son, but could not because he had fallen so far.  In addition to suing for her son’s injuries, Ms. DeStefano also sued for the emotional distress she suffered while trying to rescue her son.

The trial court dismissed Ms. DeStefano’s claim because she was not physically injured.  The Court of Appeals reversed and held that Ms. DeStefano could pursue her claim.  The Court noted that “it is commendable to save life” and therefore a “person who endeavors to avert the consequences of the negligence of another person, by an act which is dangerous but not reckless, is not precluded from recovering damages for injury suffered as a consequence of having interposed.”  Put simply, if you try to rescue someone hurt by another’s negligence and you are hurt in the process, you have a right to recover against the person who was negligent in the first place.