Robbins: The Rescue Doctrine
I have long felt that there should be a better term for a good Samaritan than a good Samaritan. Now, mind you, I’ve got nothing against Samaritans — notwithstanding that I’d bet a huckleberry to a persimmon that most folks wouldn’t know a Samaritan from Samarian or a Sumerian — but where else in the English language do we define an act or person solely by a parable?
But I digress …
When I use the term, most folks know what I am referring to.
A good Samaritan is accepted as one who extends him or herself for another, oftentimes at his or her own risk or inconvenience. In the Biblical tale, the good Samaritan — after whom 2,000 years of reference have been made — was a traveler who, despite their differences, came to the aid of an injured man who was left stripped, beaten and half dead alongside a road. According to Luke, Jesus used the tale to make a point about mercy.
But what about a rescuer or hero, a good Samaritan on steroids? Well we have the words for that; how about rescuer or hero?
So, paraphrasing Tina Turner, what’s this got to do, got to do with law? What it has to do with law is the Rescue Doctrine and a brand spankin’ new direction in Colorado.
Stated simply, the Rescue Doctrine allows a person who is injured while rescuing another to sue and potentially recover from the party whose conduct created the need for the rescue. Let’s imagine an example.
Say one imbibes a bit too much holiday cheer and tops it off with the bad judgment of getting behind the wheel to take his besotted self home. Say too, in his inebriated state, he slams into a poor unfortunate who becomes locked in her car as the car bursts into flame. Our soon-to-be-rescuer/hero notices her plight, leaps into action, comes to the rescue, and, in so doing suffers burns. When the smoke and ashes settle, our rescuer determines to sue the driver for his injuries. Under the Rescue Doctrine, he may.
If not quite as old as the hills, the Rescue Doctrine — which is meant to promote the public policy of encouraging rescue — is at least as old as the last century. Where the doctrine jumped off — both literally and metaphorically — was with the 1921 case of Wagner v. International Railway Co., a New York Court of Appeals case.
There, Wagner and his cousin boarded a train operated by the defendant Railway Co. and, oops, the conductor failed to properly close the door. When the train car leaned into a turn on a bridge, Wagner’s cousin, Herbert, tumbled out. Coming to his cousin’s rescue, Wagner hopped out after him. When he was searching along the tall trestle bridge, he lost his footing in the dark, fell, and, when he pealed off the bridge, was injured. In suing the Railway Co. for his injuries, the Rescue Doctrine was born.
In the century that followed, most states have adopted the doctrine in one guise or another.
Colorado’s first brush with the doctrine was in the 1952 case of Maloney v. Jussel, a car crash case where, after considering the Rescue Doctrine, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled it did not apply under the specific facts of the case. Other Colorado cases followed but, until recently, the doctrine in this state was ill-defined.
That all changed with the 2021 Colorado case of Garcia v. Colo. Cab Co.
Jose Garcia sued Colorado Cab Co. for negligence and unjust enrichment when Curt Glinton, who had been a passenger in one of Colorado Cab’s taxis, assaulted him, first by hitting him while they were standing outside the cab and then by running him over with the cab, which Glinton had stolen. The backstory was that late one night, the cab driver, Ali Yusuf picked up Glinton and Glinton’s friend in Denver.
The passengers, both of whom were apparently intoxicated, didn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) tell Yusuf where they wanted to go, but instead made it up as they went along, telling Yusuf where and when to turn. When they got to a certain corner, Glinton told Yusuf to stop. Yusuf did so, but when he told the passengers what the fare was, Glinton yelled and cursed at Yusuf, who explained the fare and told Glinton to pay. Glinton then grabbed and punched Yusuf from behind.
A short time earlier, Garcia was sitting in his brother’s nearby home and called for a cab. Sometime later, looking out the window, he thought he saw a taxi drive by. Thinking it might be the taxi he had called for, he followed it for couple of blocks. As it turned out, it was Yusuf’s cab. When Garcia got closer, he saw the stopped taxi and could hear Glinton and Yusuf arguing.
When he got to the taxi, he saw Glinton punching Yusuf. Garcia shouted at Glinton to pay the fare and leave Yusuf alone, saying, “Stop, stop, stop what you’re doing. This is my neighborhood.” Glinton told Garcia to “mind [his] own f—ing business.” Yusuf got out of the cab, followed by Glinton, who then continued to assault Yusuf. Garcia again told Glinton and Yusuf to stop fighting. Glinton then attacked Garcia, ultimately running him over several times and causing grievous injuries.
Garcia sued the Cab Co., alleging that it had prior knowledge of attacks on its drivers and failed to implement safety measures. The jury found for Garcia.
When the case reached the Colorado Supreme Court, the Court established a three-part rule. To qualify as a rescuer under the Rescue Doctrine, one must have intended to aid or rescue another, must have reasonably believed that the person was in imminent peril, and must have acted in such a way that s/he could have reasonably succeeded in preventing or alleviating the peril.
With the Garcia case, there is something vis-a-vis the Rescue Doctrine under the bright Colorado sun. Provided one meets the three-prong test, if one is injured in this state coming to the aid of another, the door to recovery may now be open.
By the way, the Rescue Doctrine generally does not apply to professional rescuers such as firefighters. Thank you for your service, but sorry.
One last thing, the parable of the good Samaritan involves a lawyer, even way back when. In Luke 10:25–29, the way the story begins, is this:
Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Caplan & Earnest LLC. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions; real estate and development; family law, custody and divorce; and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or rrobbins@CELaw.com. His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale)” and “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” are currently available at Amazon.com — and coming soon, “Why I Walk So Slow.”