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BC Court Of Appeal Clarifies Limits Of “Rescuer” Law

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Today’s guest post comes from B.C. injury claims lawyer Erik Magraken

The law recognizes that if a person’s negligence puts one in peril, a rescuer injured in the course of rescue can claim damages against the person who created the peril.  Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Court of Appeal discussing the scope of rescuer law.

In today’s case (Ray v. Bates) the parties were involved in a motor vehicle collision in icy conditions.  The Plaintiff claimed the collision was caused by the Defendants negligence.  Following the collision the Plaintiff slipped and fell while walking with the intention of asking first responders to contact road maintenance authorities to get the icy road salted or sanded.

The Plaintiff argued the Defendant was responsible for the slip and fall as he was acting as a ‘rescuer’ at the time.  In upholding a trial dismissal of the claim the BC Court of Appeal provided the following reasons addressing the scope of the rescuer principle:

[14] The rationale for special treatment of rescuers is that where a person’s negligence puts another person (or him/herself) in peril, it is entirely foreseeable that a bystander will react by attempting to eliminate the peril. The classic statement of the doctrine is that of Cardozo J. in Wagner v. International Railway Co. (1921), 232 N.Y. Rep. 176 at 180, 133 N.E. 437 at 437-8:

Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief. The law does not ignore these reactions of the mind in tracing conduct to its consequences. It recognises them as normal. It places their effects within the range of the natural and probable. The wrong that imperils life is a wrong to the imperilled victim; it is a wrong also to his rescuer…. The risk of rescue, if only it be not wanton, is born of the occasion. The emergency begets the man. The wrongdoer may not have foreseen the coming of a deliverer. He is accountable as if he had.

[15] In Videan v. British Transport Commission, [1963] 2 Q.B. 650, at p. 669, Lord Denning, M.R. said:

Whoever comes to the rescue, the law should see that he does not suffer for it. It seems to me that, if a person by his fault creates a situation of peril, he must answer for it to any person who attempts to rescue the person who is in danger. He owes a duty to such a person above all others. The rescuer may act instinctively out of humanity or deliberately out of courage. But whichever it is, so long as it is not wanton interference, if the rescuer is killed or injured in the attempt, he can recover damages from the one whose fault has been the cause of it.

[16] These pronouncements were cited with approval by the Supreme Court of Canada in Horsley v. MacLaren, [1972] S.C.R. 441 at 444 and 467, and in Corothers v. Slobodian, [1975] 2 S.C.R. 633 at 638‑9 and 640‑41. They were also cited in Martin v. American International Assurance Life Co., 2003 SCC 16.

[17] In Toy v. Argenti (1980), 17 B.C.L.R. 365 at 371-2, Esson J., as he then was, adopted statements describing the contours of the rescuer doctrine by Lord Jamieson of the Scottish Court of Sessions (Inner House) inSteel v. Glasgow Iron and Steel Company, [1944] S.C. 237 at 267:

[T] he following propositions … may be extracted …: (1) The intervention of human action does not necessarily per se break the chain of causation between the negligence and the injury sustained. (2) To entitle the sufferer to damages, such intervention must have been reasonable and such as might have been in the contemplation of the wrongdoer. (3) In determining what is reasonable in the circumstances the interests sought to be protected must be measured in comparison with the risks involved in the action taken. (4) If the action taken is reasonable, the injured person will not be debarred from recovering damages by his not having adopted the best possible course in the circumstances, or by his having made a mere error of judgment: but he will be debarred if his action is unreasonable and unwarrantable and outside the exigencies of the emergency: and (5) It is not essential that the action should have been taken on the impulse of the moment. The same result will follow if it arises from a natural response to avert danger after time for deliberation on the consequences of the risk taken.

To these I would add that, as the instinct to save human life is greater than the instinct to save property, a hazardous intervention for the former purpose is more likely to be a natural and probable consequence of a negligent act than one for the latter, and in the reasonable contemplation of the wrongdoer.

[18] While Steel was not a common law case, I accept, as did Esson J., that the propositions referred to are also applicable in the common law.

[19]There are a number of British Columbia cases in which plaintiffs have attempted to recover for slip and fall injuries that occurred while walking along roads in the aftermath of motor vehicle accidents. In Goodman v. Baxendall (1991), 8 B.C.A.C. 144, the plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident on a hill. After the collision, in order to warn approaching traffic that there were stopped vehicles on the highway, she walked up the hill, but slipped and fell, resulting in personal injury. The trial judge denied recovery, holding the injury was not caused by the defendant’s negligence. This court allowed an appeal, saying at 146-7:

[T]he proper approach here is to ask whether it was reasonably foreseeable that following an accident such as this and in these circumstances someone ought to walk up the roadway, and would walk up the roadway, to warn oncoming traffic of the danger of the vehicles on the roadway over the crest of the hill and, that being so, was it reasonably foreseeable that in those conditions that person could slip, fall and sustain further injury? The trial judge found the plaintiff walking up the highway was a sensible thing to do. That being so, in my opinion it follows that what happened here was reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of the negligence of the driving of the defendants and they are, as a result, responsible in law for this slip and fall and the consequent damages.

[20] On the other hand, in Schlink v. Blackburn (1993), 109 D.L.R. (4th) 331 (B.C.C.A.), the plaintiff’s wife was involved in a motor vehicle accident outside their home. The plaintiff ignored the accident until he learned that his wife was involved, at which time he rushed out of his house, tripping on the way out and injuring his ankle. The trial judge awarded damages, treating the case as a rescue case. This court disagreed, saying at 339:

This is not a “rescue case” any more than it is a “nervous shock” case. There is no evidence of danger, escape from entrapment, risk of death from delayed treatment or otherwise which would support such a classification. Accordingly, the “rescue case” authorities cited to us must be distinguished along with the authorities dealing with “nervous shock” cases.

[21] Finally, I will refer to Bridge v. Jo (1998), 53 B.C.L.R. (3d) 338 (S.C.), in which a woman went to assist a person involved in a motor vehicle accident. After attending on the accident victim, she concluded that she should call an ambulance. While walking down the icy road toward her home to do so, she slipped and fell. Mr. Justice Boyle found that it was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s negligence would result in an injury to a rescuer, and found for the plaintiff.

[22] In rescue cases, the law does not find the chain of causation to be broken by the rescuer’s actions because they are considered to be foreseeable consequences of the peril created by the negligence. In order for a plaintiff to bring him or herself within the principles applicable to rescue cases, therefore, the plaintiff must demonstrate that his or her actions were motivated by a reasonable perception of a peril that was caused by the defendant’s negligence.

[23] In my opinion, the plaintiff fails to meet this requirement in two respects. First, the plaintiff could not reasonably have perceived a peril in the circumstances of this case. Everything was under control, and there was no reason to believe that road maintenance authorities had not been advised of the situation. This is what the judge meant when he said “Whatever else may be said of the plaintiff’s decisions, it cannot be said that he needed to walk to the ambulance to summon road maintenance personnel when all of the emergency personnel described were already in attendance.” He was not applying a standard of necessity in rescue cases, but rather was making a finding that there was no purpose to be served by the plaintiff walking on the road.

[24] The plaintiff’s claim to be a “rescuer” in this case must also fail because any peril that the plaintiff was attempting to alleviate was one that was unconnected with the accident. This was not a case (like Bridge) where the plaintiff was attempting to assist a victim of the accident, nor was it a case (like Goodman) where he was attempting to reduce the danger posed to other drivers by the detritus left by the accident. The plaintiff was attempting to contact road maintenance officials to deal with the slipperiness of the road. That problem was purely a product of weather conditions, and not of the accident.