Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Good Samaritan Doctrine — Rescuers Are Liable Only If They Fail to Exercise Reasonable Care in a Way That Worsens the Position of the Victim, Either by Increasing the Risk or Inducing Reliance, by the Victim or Other Rescuers

Turner v. United States, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 23349 (4th Cir. Nov. 20, 2013):

The USCG's [U.S. Coast Guard’s] enabling statute, 14 U.S.C. § 88, authorizes the USCG to undertake rescue efforts, but does not impose any affirmative duty to commence such rescue operations. See Hurd v. United States, 34 F. App'x 77, 81 (4th Cir. 2002) (collecting cases). But, "once the Coast Guard undertakes a rescue operation, it must act with reasonable care." Sagan, 342 F.3d at 498  (citing Patentas v. United States, 687 F.2d 707 (3d Cir. 1982)).    "Its actions are judged according to the so-called 'Good Samaritan' doctrine." Id. "Under this doctrine, a defendant [becomes] liable for breach of a duty voluntarily assumed by affirmative conduct, even when that assumption of duty was gratuitous."  Id. (citing Indian Towing Co. v. United States, 350 U.S. 61, 76 S. Ct. 122, 100 L. Ed. 48 (1955)); see also, Thames Shipyard & Repair Co. v. United States, 350 F.3d 247, 261 (1st Cir. 2003); Frank v. United States, 250 F.2d 178, 180 (3d Cir. 1957).

Footnote 3.      Because the USCG has no duty to rescue, the law imposes no standard of care until an attempted rescue commences. The parties devoted much effort below, and considerable effort in this Court, arguing over when the USCG's attempted rescue began. Because we find that the USCG did not violate the operative standard of care at any time, we need not address the issue of when the formal rescue attempt began.

The Good Samaritan doctrine, however, sets a high bar to impose liability on a rescuer. The evidence must show that the rescuer failed to exercise reasonable care in a way that worsened the position of the victim.   See Sagan, 342 F.3d at 498 [Sagan v. United States, 342 F.3d 493, 498 (6th Cir. 2003)] (citing Myers v. United States, 17 F.3d 890, 903 (6th Cir. 1994)).    "There are two ways in which a rescuer can worsen the position of the subject of the rescue. The first is by increasing the risk of harm to the person in distress. The second is to induce reliance, either by the subject or other potential rescuers, on the rescuer's efforts." Hurd, 34 F. App'x at 84 (internal citations omitted); see also, Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 323, 324A, 327. The test is whether "the risk was increased over what it would have been had the defendant not engaged in the undertaking at all." Sagan, 342 F.3d at 498.


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