• The Rescue Doctrine Meets Superseding Cause
  • December 22, 2012 | Author: John R. Riddell
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - King Of Prussia Office
  • Key Points:

    • The rescue doctrine will not make an original tortfeasor liable for injuries attributable to a superseding cause.
    • The viability of the rescue doctrine must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

    This article addresses two rarely seen, but important concepts of Pennsylvania case law—the rescue doctrine and the doctrine of superseding cause. The first concept holds that an individual who has placed himself or herself in peril is presumed to foresee that people will come to render aid and precludes the imperiled person from claiming that the rescuer was contributory negligent for attempting the rescue. A superseding cause is one that is so remote as to not be reasonably foreseeable.

    In Bole v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 2012 Pa. LEXIS 1861 (Pa. Aug. 20, 2012), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the confluence of these concepts. The Court was called to determine whether a volunteer firefighter, Ronald Bole, who was engaged in a rescue, could recover underinsured motorist benefits from an underinsured motorist who crashed his car, when, on his way to the accident scene, a bridge over which the firefighter was traveling collapsed—constituting a superseding cause.

    First, some context. In Pachesky v. Getz, 510 A.2d 776, 782 (Pa.Super. 1986), the Superior Court had indicated that the rescue doctrine serves to establish a causal connection between a tortfeasor's negligence and a rescuer's injury, and the court supported that the rescue doctrine establishes "a causal connection between a defendant's original negligence and a plaintiff/rescuer's injury where a causal connection might not otherwise exist." Bell v. Irace, 619 A.2d 365, 369 (Pa.Super. 1993)(en banc)(citing Pachesky, at 783). In Pachesky, Mrs. Pachesky was returning home after working a night shift. As she approached her home, she noticed a stationary vehicle in the middle of the roadway. The vehicle's lights were on and the engine was running. Inside was a man who appeared to be unconscious and slumped over the steering wheel. The man was later identified as defendant, Frank Getz. Mrs. Pachesky banged on the window and tried to open the passenger door, to no avail. She then moved around to the driver side where she was able to open the door, reach in and turn off the ignition. Unfortunately, the vehicle was in neutral and began to roll backwards, knocking Mrs. Pachesky to the ground and causing her injury. No word on what happened to the snoozing tortfeasor.

    One of the defenses raised by Mr. Getz was a lack of causal link between his actions and the injury. Getz argued that he did not ask the plaintiff to come to his aid and, therefore, could not be responsible for her injuries.

    At trial, Mrs. Pachesky requested a rescue doctrine charge. The trial judge denied her request. Mrs. Pachesky lost at trial and appealed. On appeal, the Superior Court held that "when a plaintiff performs a rescue in a reasonable manner, he or she is entitled to full recovery from the negligent defendant for all damages occasioned thereby. However, when the plaintiff acts unreasonably, that is, in a negligent fashion, in performing a rescue, the relative causal negligence of the parties should be apportioned in accordance with the provisions of Section 7102." Pachesky, 510 A.2d at 783.

    Fast-forwarding to 2012, the Bole Court was faced with a similar set of facts, albeit with a more tenuous causal connection. As aforementioned, Mr. Bole was a volunteer firefighter. The tortfeasor, Mr. Finazzo, allegedly drove his vehicle in a hurricane, causing it to crash and necessitating a rescue. Mr. Bole received a telephone call directing him to respond. As he was driving to the fire station, a bridge located on his property collapsed as he traversed it. Mr. Bole's vehicle crashed, causing him serious injury.

    Mr. Bole contended that Mr. Finazzo was underinsured and brought a claim for underinsured motorist benefits with his own carrier, Erie Insurance Exchange. After winding its way through arbitration and the court system, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine the issue of whether Mr. Bole had a viable underinsured claim.

    Erie principally argued that the bridge collapse was a superseding cause of Mr. Bole's injuries. It contended that the rescue doctrine does not allow recovery where an unforeseeable intervening act causes injury to the rescuer. Mr. Bole contended that the rescue doctrine provided the needed nexus to pursue his claim.

    In holding that Mr. Finazzo could not be liable for Mr. Bole's injuries (and that Mr. Bole could not recover UIM benefits), since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court limited and clarified the rescue doctrine, it explained, "[t]he rescue doctrine holds the original tortfeasor liable, as one would reasonably foresee that rescuers summoned may be injured. It is quite another matter to make him a guarantor of the rescuer's safety. Forseeability is still in play, and the modifier 'reasonably' still abides in its application—harm that is not reasonably foreseeable is not the responsibility of the tortfeastor."

    The Court went on to state that determinations of what constitutes a superseding cause are normally to be made by the fact finder. It found that the arbitrators' determination that the bridge collapse was a superseding cause of Mr. Bole's injury was not contrary to law.

    For the practitioner, this decision means that, while we can expect our clients and insureds to be subject to potential liability for injuries to persons who have come to their rescue at a time of peril, such duties have limitations. While it would be nice to have a bright line rule as to what might constitute a superseding cause in rescue situations, the superseding cause determination will have to be made on a case-by-case basis and will depend upon the individual facts presented.