Expansion of the Duties Owed to Rescuers

What can be reasonably foreseeable in rescue situations?

In Maguire v. Padt, Suzanne Padt was found to be negligent when she drove into a ditch while driving in winter whiteout road conditions. Two other drivers and a police officer stopped to assist Ms. Padt and her daughter out of the ditch and were successful in getting them into the police car safely. Amidst the investigation into the accident and while Ms. Padt was in the police car, another vehicle lost control and hit the rescuers standing around the original accident scene, killing two and seriously injuring the other. Lawsuits were commenced against Ms. Padt and the question was whether she, as the original negligent party, was also liable for the death and injuries sustained by her rescuers, despite being hit by someone else. In a summary judgment motion, the motions judge held that Ms. Padt bears liability for the injuries suffered by the three individuals that were struck by the vehicle involved in the second accident.

It would seem that Justice Lederer has expanded the law in favour of rescue victims. In particular, he has reminded us of the importance of the rescue doctrine, which is premised on the three competing values that are said to inform our sense of justice:

  • visions of justice drawn from moral ideals,
  • the promotion of prosperity, and
  • respecting individual rights.

The rationale is that if the argument put forth by Ms. Padt is accepted (i.e., that rescuers should not recover from the danger created by the original negligent party), it would “sensitize rescuers to the risk they are taking, detract from the intuitive desire to respond to the cries of distress and return us to a time where people were less inclined to help.” The fear is that people may be deterred from being good Samaritans.

Ms. Padt took the position that her obligations to the rescuers ended when the ‘imminent peril’ was over. In trying to prove this, Ms. Padt undertook an examination of when the rescue was, indeed, over. It was argued that any duty of care owed by her was spent when the rescuers were preparing to leave, the police had done the investigation and Ms. Padt was safe with her belongings (i.e., that the physical rescue had ended).

Justice Lederer disagreed with Ms. Padt’s conclusion that the rescue had ended by the time the other car collided with the accident scene. It was held that her duty did not cease when there were no longer circumstances of imminent peril such that there remained a danger to the rescuers. Justice Lederer dismissed Ms. Padt’s argument and said that the real question in determining liability in these cases is determining what was reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances. The court held

“it is the foreseeability of the actions of the rescuer that are the source of the liability owed to the rescuer by the party creating the peril. Liability does not depend on the passing of a moment (the end of the imminent peril), the rescuer, in his or her own interest, must discover or divine in the moments immediately following the rescue”.

In this case, the question is not that Ms. Padt was safely in her car and therefore the rescue had ended, but instead, whether it was reasonably foreseeable that Ms. Padt’s negligence could attract a rescuer to intervene, who may sustain injury in the process. Justice Lederer essentially said that it was reasonably foreseeable that the original accident scene created a danger and, therefore, risk of harm to the rescuers even after the physical rescue was over. It was reasonably foreseeable that the rescuers would stay at the accident scene to assist the police with the investigation and that her duty extended through that process. In other words, the first accident created the foreseeable risk that rescuers would intervene, assist and could be harmed by a further accident. That fact actually materialized.

Tort cases such as these do, and should, involve the “foreseeability analysis”. On the basis of this decision, one should consider additional parties that injured rescuers can sue when they are injured during a rescue. For example, is it reasonably foreseeable in a case like this that a rescuer could sue a municipality for failing to not properly maintain roads or even close the roads (given dangerous conditions), when it is foreseeable that accidents could occur, which may involve injuries to rescuers. It may be that there is rationale for such a finding to emphasize and uphold the incentive for good Samaritans to assist those in danger. Indeed, this decision appears to have expanded the law in favour of accident victims.

Barbara A. MacFarlane is an OTLA Director (Chair of Women’s Trial Lawyers’ Caucus) and a partner and head of the Personal Injury Group at Torkin Manes, LLP.

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Barbara is a partner of Torkin Manes LLP Barristers & Solicitors and head of our Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Groups, with a civil litigation practice focused on catastrophic injury and fatalities. Her cases include wrongful death, motor vehicle accidents, product liability, tavern liability and complex medical negligence cases. Barb is experienced Trial Counsel and has appeared as lead Appellate Counsel in the Ontario Court of Appeal. She regularly represents clients in the Superior Court, at Coroners’ Inquests and various administrative Tribunals. Barb has been involved in many complex litigation matters, including class actions.

Barb is Chair of the Women’s Trial Lawyers Caucus of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association.