Sometimes a party causes a tort based on negligence, but can invoke a defense to negligence. This lesson explores several negligence claims and defenses, including the rescue doctrine, the Good Samaritan Act, the fireman’s rule, and Dram Shop Acts.

Torts

Much of our civil law focuses on torts. Torts are civil causes of action based on someone’s negligence. For example, it’s a tort when a distracted driver rear-ends another, or when a dog owner lets his dog run leash-free and the dog bites a jogger. This means that one party acted negligently, or failed to act when he or she should have. This party is known as the tortfeasor. When a tortfeasor harms another party, that party can usually sue the tortfeasor for money damages.

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Sometimes, however, a tortfeasor can use a defense to negligence. A defense to negligence essentially admits that the supposed tortfeasor harmed someone, but the harmed party can’t recover damages from the tortfeasor due to a specific law that prevents recovery in that particular situation. Let’s take a look at a few scenarios.

Rescue Doctrine

Let’s first examine a situation where an alleged tortfeasor, or the person who caused harm, won’t be held liable for his or her actions. Instead, the harmed party can be held liable for his or her original negligence. This rule is known as the rescue doctrine, and is also commonly known as ‘danger invites rescue.’

This legal principle generally means that a person who acts negligently can be held liable for harm that results from an attempted rescue of that person. In other words, if your negligent actions endanger the safety of someone who attempts to rescue you, or causes other damage, you are then responsible for any resulting injuries or damage. Your injured rescuer can sue you and recover damages as long as you caused the dangerous situation and the rescuer acted reasonably considering the circumstances.

For example, let’s say that Henry decides to skydive off his roof and into his backyard. Henry’s parachute snags power lines, and he ends up dangling from those lines. Trent is an electrical worker who is called to the scene. When Trent attempts to untangle Henry’s parachute, Trent accidentally causes both parties to be mildly electrocuted.

Henry was harmed by Trent’s actions, and would like to sue Trent for money damages to cover Henry’s medical bills. Trent caused the harm and would normally be considered to be a tortfeasor. However, since Henry’s original act of negligence, jumping off his roof, caused Trent’s attempted rescue, Henry can’t recover from Trent. Instead, Trent can recover his medical bills from Henry.

Good Samaritan Act

Next, let’s take a look at the counterpart to the rescue doctrine, known as the Good Samaritan Act. The act is actually a series of individual state laws based on a legal principle that protects rescuers from negligence claims. The rule is a defense that protects a person who chooses to assist another injured or ill person. The rule specifically applies to those who volunteer to help, rather than those who are legally obligated to help or expect payment for their services, such as on-duty emergency or medical personnel.

The doctrine is based on a historical biblical parable. A traveler from Samaria stopped to aid a badly injured traveler from a different religious and ethnic background. The Samaritan aided the traveler with great risk to his own safety. Sometimes a bystander is hesitant to get involved in this type of emergency situation. The act is intended to encourage participation at the scene by reducing a bystander’s hesitation to assist. If the bystander unintentionally causes further injury or death, that bystander cannot be held legally liable for his or her reasonable actions.

Remember that the rescue doctrine involves the rescue of a person who caused his or her own danger, and places liability on that person. Under the Good Samaritan Act, the injured person didn’t necessarily cause the danger. The doctrine protects the rescuer from liability without placing liability on the injured person.

For example, let’s say that Henry was cleaning his gutters when he fell off his roof and became tangled in the power lines. Trent is Henry’s neighbor, and hears Henry calling for help. When Trent attempts to free Henry, he accidentally electrocutes Henry. Trent is a tortfeasor because his acts caused injury to another, but Henry can’t recover damages from Trent.

Fireman’s Rule

Now let’s turn to another negligence doctrine that allows protection, or a defense, for a tortfeasor. This legal doctrine is known as the fireman’s rule, and protects people who negligently cause fires in most states. The rule states that a firefighter can’t sue a person who negligently causes a fire that injures a responding firefighter. Keep in mind, however, that the rule doesn’t apply to protect a party who intentionally causes a fire.

Some states extend the rule to cover police officers and other public safety officials. The rule is based on an assumption of the risk. In other words, emergency responders knowingly and voluntarily place themselves in danger on behalf of the public, and therefore can’t recover damages for injuries that directly result from their duties.

Like the Good Samaritan Act, this legal doctrine is intended to encourage participation. When a person accidentally causes a fire, that person should call for professional help without fear of being sued by those who respond. For example, let’s say Trent, our tortfeasor, accidentally starts a fire in his kitchen. Henry is a firefighter and receives the emergency call. Henry burns his hand while putting out Trent’s fire. Henry would like to sue Trent for money damages, in order to recover his medical bills. However, under the fireman’s rule, he cannot.

Dram Shop Acts

Lastly, let’s take a look at a rule that’s a little different from these. This rule imposes liability for negligence in most states, but on someone other than the tortfeasor. The Dram Shop Acts are a series of state laws that place liability on parties who serve alcohol to a person, and that person injures another as a result of his or her intoxication.

A dram shop is a business that sells liquor to be consumed there on those premises, such as a bar or a restaurant. However, note that these laws can hold either businesses or individuals liable for serving intoxicants. A person who is harmed by the intoxicated guest can of course sue that tortfeasor. However, these laws also allow the harmed party to sue the server or seller.

For example, let’s say that Trent celebrates his birthday at Tom’s Toddy’s, which is a local bar. Tom serves Trent several drinks. Trent leaves the bar in his own car, and has an accident that injures Henry. Trent caused the damage to Henry, and so Trent is a tortfeasor and can be sued. However, Tom is also a tortfeasor and can also be sued by Henry.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Torts are civil causes of action based on someone’s negligence. The party who acted negligently, or failed to act when he or she should have is known as the tortfeasor. There are several defenses to negligence torts:

  • The first rule is known as the rescue doctrine, or ‘danger invites rescue.’ This means that a person who acts negligently can be held liable for harm that results from an attempted rescue of that person.
  • The second is the Good Samaritan Act. This rule protects a person who chooses to assist another injured or ill person from damages resulting from the rescue.
  • The third is the fireman’s rule. This rule states that a firefighter can’t sue a person who negligently causes a fire that injures a responding firefighter.
  • The last is known as the Dram Shop Acts. These state laws place liability on parties who serve alcohol to a person, and that person injures another as a result of his or her intoxication.

Learning Outcome

After watching this lesson, you should be able to define torts and identify several defenses against negligence torts.