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Rescue doctrine extends only to human life, not pets, NJ court rules

A New Jersey woman almost drowned trying to save a neighbor's dog, but the state's high court says she cannot seek damages from the animal's owners.

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — Pupcakes, pet whisperers and the movement to get zoo animals writs of habeas corpus may have blurred the line, but the New Jersey Supreme Court is holding firm that our furry friends are not valued the same as human life, dealing a blow to a woman who sought damages after she nearly drowned in an effort to save her neighbor's dog.

Ilona and Robert DeStefanis were hosting a dinner party on a summer evening in 2017 when they noticed their 79-pound boxer, Beau, was nowhere to be found. The family ultimately found Beau in a nearby canal and managed to pull him out, but shortly after their son told them to call 911 because there was a woman in the canal who needed help. 

Ann Samolyk had nearly drowned and was unconscious on a floating dock when police responded to the call. She suffered a brain injury that has caused lasting damage, and her husband, John, sued the DeStefanises in 2019 under New Jersey's so-called rescue doctrine.

The DeStefanis family denies that they ever asked for assistance, but Samolyk claims that his wife jumped in the water after hearing a neighbor crying for help because there was a dog struggling in the canal. He also says his wife would never have had had to jump in the canal that night if the family had been more responsible in watching their dog.

On Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that the rescue doctrine is used to hold individuals liable if they put themselves in a dangerous situation, and the rescuer was hurt as a result. But the same rule has never before been extended to property or, in this case, pets.

“Notwithstanding the strong emotional attachment people may have to dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals, or the great significance some may attribute to family heirlooms, or works of art generally considered as irreplaceable parts of our cultural history, sound public policy cannot sanction expanding the rescue doctrine to imbue property with the same status and dignity uniquely conferred upon a human life,” Judge Jose Fuentes wrote for the unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court, assigned there temporarily from his normal Superior Court post.

The 14-page ruling goes on to note that the rescue doctrine is reserved for human life only because of the reasonable risk a person is willing to take to save a fellow human; the risk becomes far less reasonable, however, to save property.

“The risk factor is calibrated only by the reasonableness of the actions taken by the rescuer because all human life is equally precious,” Fuentes wrote. “The same calculation, considering the necessarily subjective attachments to property, would prove untenable.”

Fuentes allowed that the doctrine could be extended to include acts that appear to be an effort to protect property but are ultimately reasonable measures to protect a human life. Someone injured trying to put out a neighbor's house fire would be an example.

“Under those circumstances, if the fire was negligently started, the neighbor may have a cognizable basis to invoke the rescue doctrine to recover damages for injuries caused by the preemptive measures taken to limit the intensity of the fire, even if it is later determined there was no actual risk to human life because the house was unoccupied,” the ruling states.

John Burke, an attorney for the DeStefanis family with the law firm Burke Potenza, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, nor did Samolyk's lawyer, William Wright.

Fuentes is sitting on the high court temporarily until Justice Jaynee LaVecchia’s seat is filled. He was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, Justices Anne Patterson, Lee Solomon, Barry Albin and Fabiana Pierre-Louis.

A lower appellate court dismissed Samolyk in June last year, and the Samolyks appealed to the state's high court in February.

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