rescue doctrine

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Generally, in tort law, there is no duty to rescue another. However, if an individual negligently creates the need for a rescue—i.e. creates a situation which puts another in peril—then a duty to rescue may arise for that individual.  For example, in Yania v. Bigan, a 1959 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, the court found that strip-mine operators who urged, enticed and taunted a visitor to jump into a cut approximately 8-10 feet deep with water had a duty to rescue the visitor when he jumped in response to their urging and drowned.

Additionally, if an individual initiates a rescue attempt, that individual may be liable if they are negligent in their rescue attempt. For example, in Zelenko v. Gimbel Bros., Inc., a 1935 New York state case, the court found that shop owners who began to render an ill customer medical assistance—i.e. initiated a rescue attempt—were liable for her death under a standard of negligence when they left her alone for many hours after initially rendering care.

Some common law jurisdictions, however, break from the common law principle that only creates a duty to rescue in certain conditions and created statutes which create a general duty to rescue in certain conditions. In Ontario, for example, the provincial government provides that “despite the rules of common law, a person. . . who voluntarily and without reasonable expectation of compensation or reward provides the services described in that subsection is not liable for damages that result from the person’s negligence in acting or failing to act while providing the services, unless it is established that the damages were caused by the gross negligence of the person.” Certain U.S. states have also modified the common law aversion to creating a duty to rescue. Minnesota, for example, provides that “[a] person at the scene of an emergency who knows that another person is exposed to or has suffered grave physical harm shall, to the extent that the person can do so without danger or peril to self or others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person.”

[Last updated in December of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]