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What is the “Danger Invites Rescue” Doctrine?

black skull and bones with the word "danger" surrounded by a yellow background

What occurs under the law when someone tries to intercede to help an injured person, injuring themselves in the process? Well, according to the “danger invites rescue” doctrine, a person that negligently created the dangerous condition necessitating the rescue, will be liable for damages to anyone injured in the process of rescuing another imperiled by the condition.

The “danger invites rescue” theory is as follows:

  1. Someone is in danger due to the negligence of another
  2. The rescuer goes to help or rescue the person in danger
  3. The rescuer incurs injury; and
  4. The rescuer may sue the person whose negligence made the rescue necessary.

The “danger invites rescue” doctrine was first used by the Famous Supreme Court Justice, and New York Judge, Benjamin J. Cardozo in Eckert v. Long Is. R.R, Co. (1871). In Eckert, a man died after he jumped onto the tracks to save his cousin. Moments prior, the train had thrown his cousin onto the tracks. His estate sued and the Court found in their favor. The Court stated that the deceased rescuer’s actions were not a bar to recovery, even if normally negligent, because the actions, when done “for the purpose of saving life, [were] not wrongful, and therefore not negligent unless…rash or reckless.” The Court further stated that the law has a high regard for human life and thus will rarely deem rescuers negligent. The “danger invites rescue” doctrine continues to play a strong role in deciding negligence lawsuits today.

One recent case showing the doctrine’s continuing importance is Leonard v. City of New York (2023). Leonard was a construction worker helping to reconstruct sewers and water mains. He was near a trench when it collapsed. A fellow worker fell into the hole and a steel beam fell onto his leg. At this point, he screamed out in pain and Leonard jumped in the hole to help him. In his attempt to remove the beam from his co-worker’s leg, Leonard injured himself. He suffered serious back injuries requiring surgeries and therapy. The defendant, the City of New York, moved to dismiss, claiming that no one instructed plaintiff to remove the steel beam atop his co-worker’s leg. The Court dismissed the motion to dismiss because of the “danger invites rescue” doctrine. The Court stated the “doctrine establishes a duty of care toward a potential rescuer where a culpable party has placed another person in a position of imminent peril.”

There is one important distinction to remember though when applying the “rescue invites danger” doctrine. The Court stated that “more than a “mere suspicion of danger to the life of another is requisite before the doctrine should be implemented.” However, the Court did also make sure to state that “since the attempted rescue need only be a reasonable course of conduct at the time it is taken, it is of no import[ance] that the danger was not as real as it appeared.” Therefore, if you or another were injured while trying to save another due to negligence, you should contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible.