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January 2013 Negligence Update

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court holds that a negligent driver who causes a wreck is not liable to a fireman who is injured while responding to the crash under the danger invites rescue – a.k.a. rescue doctrine.

In Bole v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 50 A.3d 1256 (2012), a volunteer firefighter (Bole) was responding to a crash involving a car being negligently driven during a hurricane.  While Bole was driving to the fire station in response to the crash a bridge on his property collapsed as he drove over it, due to flood waters from the hurricane, and he was badly injured.  Since the negligent driver was underinsured, Bole sued to collect underinsured motorist (UIM) benefits from his insurer, Erie Insurance Exchange.  Naturally, Erie did not want to pay so the claim was arbitrated.

A split arbitration panel determined Bole was not entitled to the UIM benefits since he was not driving to the scene and therefore did not fall within the rescue doctrine.  The rescue doctrine holds that if a person creates a circumstance that places the victim in danger, that person is liable not only for the harm caused to the victim, but also the harm caused to any person injured in an effort to rescue that victim.  After a series of appeals, the Supreme Court granted allocator to determine whether an individual engaged in a rescue could recover under the rescue doctrine for injuries sustained as a result of a superseding cause, bridge collapse, when the same cause resulted in the original accident that created the need for a rescue.

In prior cases the Supreme Court has held “[i]t is not contributory negligence for a plaintiff to expose himself to danger in a reasonable effort to save a third person or the land or chattels of himself to a third person from harm.”  Guca v. Pittsburgh Railways Co., 80 A.2d 779 (1951).  Further, the rescue doctrine permits an injured rescuer to recover when his recovery would be otherwise barred by the strict application of the defense of contributory negligence.

In Bole, the court analyzed whether a person is liable “for all injuries a rescuer suffers during the rescue, even when the injuries are caused by an unforeseeable superseding cause?” The Supreme Court held that the rescue doctrine will not make the original responsible person liable for injuries attributable to a superseding cause.  A superseding cause “must be an act which is so extraordinary as not to have been reasonably foreseeable.”  Von der Heide v. Commonwealth Dept. of Transportation, 718 A.2d 186 (1998).  Applying this standard to the Bole case, the Supreme Court found it was not reasonably foreseeable that a bridge more than three miles away, on the rescuer’s own property, would collapse and injure a rescuer as he drove to the fire station.  To read the full opinion please click here.