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November 05, 2012

Bridge Collapse Provides Defense to Rescue Doctrine Suit

Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had occasion to analyze the interplay between the rescue doctrine and the doctrine of superseding cause. The rescue doctrine provides it is not contributory negligence for a plaintiff to expose himself to danger in a reasonable effort to save another person from harm. Restatement of Torts §472.

In Bole v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 2012 WL 3731776 (Pa. 2012), Devin Finazzo drove negligently during a hurricane, causing his car to crash. His passenger was seriously injured and Finazzo used his cell phone to summon emergency help. Ronald Bole, a volunteer firefighter, received a call to respond to the crash. On his way to the fire station, a bridge collapsed as he drove over it, causing him serious injuries. Because Finazzo was underinsured, Bole sued to collect underinsured motorist benefits from Erie, his insurer. Following a remand, the arbitration panel found that although Bole was engaged in a rescue, the bridge collapsed because of intervening circumstances not attributable to Finazzo. Both the trial court and the Superior Court affirmed on appeal.

 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine whether the Superior Court erred in holding that Bole, who was engaged in a rescue, could not recover under the rescue doctrine because the collapse of the bridge was a superseding cause. The Supreme Court observed that “[a] superseding cause is an act of a third person or other force which, by its intervention, prevents the actor from being liable for harm to another which his antecedent negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about.” In addition, a superseding cause must be an act which is so extraordinary as not to have been reasonably foreseeable. But before determining whether the bridge collapse was reasonably foreseeable, the court first had to determine whether the rescue doctrine bars the application of the doctrine of superseding cause: that is, is a tortfeasor liable for all injuries a rescuer suffers during the rescue, even when the injuries are caused by an unforeseeable superseding cause?

The court noted that under the rescue doctrine it is appropriate to hold the original tortfeasor liable in many instances, as it is reasonably foreseeable that rescuers that have been summoned may be injured, but the court was not willing to go so far as to make the original tortfeasor a guarantor of the rescuer’s safety. The court observed that foreseeability is still in play and harm that is not reasonably foreseeable is not the responsibility of the tortfeasor even under the rescue doctrine.

“A tortfeasor who places himself or another in peril is presumed to foresee that people will come to render aid – he cannot argue the rescue attempt was unforeseeable, nor that it was contributory negligence. However, the rescue doctrine cannot be so broad as to make the tortfeasor liable for all harm befalling a rescuer. The rescue doctrine may allow recovery if the rescuer was struck by a car while driving to the scene, for that is reasonably foreseeable – it would not allow recovery if the rescuer was struck by a meteor as that is not reasonably foreseeable.”

Obviously, the court used examples at the opposite ends of the spectrum to illustrate the distinction. Unfortunately, facts in real life are not usually so clear.

The Supreme Court held the rescue doctrine will not make an original tortfeasor liable for injuries attributable to a superseding cause. It stated a superseding cause must be an act which is so extraordinary as not to have been reasonably foreseeable. It also observed that if it was reasonable to foresee that Finazzo’s rescuers may be injured by a collapsing bridge while coming to his aid, the rescue doctrine would allow recovery. Determinations of superseding cause, however, are normally made by the fact finder. In this case, that was the arbitration panel, which concluded that the bridge collapse was not reasonably foreseeable and therefore was a superseding cause. The Supreme Court held this finding was not contrary to law. The majority opinion concluded by saying Finazzo could have foreseen Bole would come from miles away to render assistance and might have been injured during his attempt. It was not, however, reasonable to foresee a bridge more than three miles away would collapse and injure Bole as he drove to the station.

What It Means to You

Based upon the Supreme Court’s decision, the doctrine of superseding cause is a viable defense under the rescue doctrine, and should be raised if warranted by the facts of the case. It is important to note that, in most instances, the ultimate determination of whether an event or an act is a superseding cause will be made by the fact finder, whether it be a jury, arbitration panel, or judge sitting in a non-jury proceeding. In other words, a superseding cause, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, a point illustrated by the dissent of Mr. Justice Eakin, who concluded the bridge collapse was foreseeable.

Sources

Bole v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 2012 WL 3731776 (Pa. 2012)