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Dog owners fight to shirk liability after pet rescue invited tragedy

Two legs or four? New Jersey's high court will decide if a person who tries to save someone else's pet can sue that animal's owner for putting their lives in danger.

TRENTON (CN) — After a woman nearly drowned trying to save her neighbor's dog in a canal, the New Jersey Supreme Court held arguments Tuesday that could reshape the state's rescue doctrine.

The law creates liability for a person who needs to be rescued after getting themselves into danger, or for the third party who caused the danger, if their rescuer winds up injured. Typically this doctrine is reserved for rescuing human life, not property, or in this case — a dog.

John Samolyk seeks to extend the law after his neighbor's dog, a 79-pound boxer named Beau, jumped into a canal after escaping from a fenced-in yard, creating a panic one summer night in 2017. The dog's owners, Ilona and Robert DeStefanis, deny that they had called for help, but Samolyk says his wife, Ann, dove into the water after hearing their cries and nearly drowned herself.

Rescued from the floating dock where she was found unconscious, Ann was left with debilitating brain damage.

Her husband, as guardian ad litem, now seeks to hold the DeStefanis family liable under the rescue doctrine. This past June, the Superior Court affirmed dismissal of the case, finding that the rescue doctrine does not extend to saving a dog, and it never has.

William Wright, representing Samolyk, told the New Jersey Supreme Court that the doctrine should extend to property, especially pets, given how society views pets today.

“Our relationship with animals has changed from the days where we would keep dogs in a kennel in our backyard to the days now where the dog sleeps on your bed and you dress it up for holidays,” Wright said in court Tuesday. “The danger to a pet currently is the same in our society to the danger of a human crying out for the rescue of a child or family member.”

The case marks the last day of arguments for the soon-to-be-retiring Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, who questioned whether extending the doctrine to property will open the door to frivolous suits.

“Should the object be considered, whether it's trivial or not, in this case we have a dog, but let's say it was someone's watch that they dropped in the street, negligently, and you ran out and got run over by a tractor trailer to protect the watch, should there be some limits to what you suggest,” Fernandez-Vina asked.

Wright agreed that should be a factor, noting the rescue should be reasonable.

John Burke, representing the dog owners, says it would be unreasonable to extend the doctrine to a dog rescue, noting it’s not comparable to human life.

“You know, if I were to run into my neighbor's burning house to save their baby and die, my children would say their father died a hero,” said Burke. “If I were to run into my neighbor's burning house to save a dog, my children would say, ‘Whatever possessed him to do that?’”

The Burke Potenza attorney stressed, if the doctrine were to be extended to property, claims could get really into the weeds.

“If an unattended beach ball blew into the Chesapeake Bay, would the rescuers who went to retrieve the ball in the bay have a claim against the owner of the ball,” Burke asked.

Justice Barry Albin scoffed at the notion.

“That's never going to fly, no court in this state is going to say that it's reasonable to put your life in danger to save a beachball,” said Albin. “Who is going to do that? That is an absurd example.”

Burke pushed back, adding that as absurd as it may be, courts would have to rule that way if the doctrine was extended to property. Further, Burke again pressed that dogs, or inanimate objects, do not reach to the same level as human life under the doctrine.

Albin was still not buying it, pointing to the human nature of wanting to help.

“Maybe someone wouldn't run into a burning building with a pail of water, but someone might get their hose out and start trying to wash down the outside to put out the flames, and maybe something would fall and hit the person in the head,” said Albin. “And under your doctrine it's too bad that you made the effort, the reasonable effort to put your hose on the house, even though the person may have negligently left some heater on or whatever.”

Burke agreed, saying the doctrine should not extend to inanimate objects such as a house.

Neither Burke nor Wright immediately responded to email seeking comment.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Anne Patterson, Lee Solomon and Fabiana Pierre-Louis sat on the Tuesday panel as well. Superior Court Judge Jose Fuentes sat in place of Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, whose seat remains unfilled after she retired in August.

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