On June 13, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an opinion in the matter of Ann Samolyk v. Dorothy Berthe, III (A-16-21) (085946), where the Court declined to extend the state’s so-called rescue doctrine beyond situations involving the rescue of humans. The Court held that the rescue of property is not “in whatever form, to be equally entitled to the unique value and protection bestowed on human life.” Id. at 2.
On July 13, 2017, plaintiff, Ann Samolyk alleged she sustained neurological and cognitive injuries while attempting to rescue her neighbor’s 79-pound boxer, Beau. The canine had either fallen in or jumped into the canal that wraps around a shore community in Forked River. Ms. Samolyk claimed she heard someone calling for help, a fact that was disputed by the defendants and dove into the canal in an attempt to rescue the struggling dog. Ultimately, Beau was removed from the channel, unharmed, by the defendants’ son and a friend. Shortly after, the son called for someone to call 911 because there was a woman in the canal who needed help.
Ms. Samolyk nearly drowned and was found unconscious on a floating dock when police arrived. She suffered a brain injury that has caused permanent damage, and her husband, John Samolyk, sued the defendants in 2019 under New Jersey’s rescue doctrine.
In describing the doctrine, the Court cited the 1921 New York Court of Appeals case of Wagner v. International Railway, where it was expressed as follows: “[t]he state that leaves an opening in a bridge is liable to the child that falls into the stream, but liable also the parent who plunges to its aid.” 232 N.Y. 176 (N.Y. 1921). In other words, the rescue doctrine stands for the idea that whoever is liable for putting a person in peril is likewise liable for injuries sustained by the rescuer. However, that same rule has never been extended to property or, in this case, pets, as it has in some of our sister states.
Judge Jose L. Fuentes, temporarily assigned to the New Jersey Supreme Court, delivered the unanimous opinion for the court. In its ruling, the Court stated, “[n]otwithstanding 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.” Samolyk, supra at 12.
The unanimous opinion was joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, and Justices Barry T. Albin, Anne M. Patterson, Lee A. Solomon, and Fabiana Pierre-Louis.
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