Suing Your Rescuers – Ridiculous! Or Maybe Not…

By this point you’ve probably heard about Roy Ortiz, the Colorado man who, after being rescued from a submerged car, is considering suing his rescuers, apparently because they took too long to free him.

The reactions of many were predictable: outrage, directed at Mr. Ortiz and (of course) his lawyer. Here’s one of many examples taken from the Yahoo! article about the story:

This is another example of the freaks of this world trying to find an easy way to make money. The idiot had no idea that the flooding was that bad? How stupid can you really be? And then, instead of a thank you to being rescued, he chooses to sue them. They should counter sue and place a penalty on his lawyer also. It is time to start making examples of such idiots. If he wins this case, the attorney and the judge both deserve to lose their licenses to practice. We, the people will need to make a stand.

In the “words” of Joseph Ducreux, are you angered, brother?

First, filing and prosecuting a personal injury lawsuit is hardly an “easy way to make money”. Second, this comment (and others) aptly demonstrate the divergence between how people think and feel the law should work, on the one hand, and how it actually works, on the other.

Granted, the notion of suing one’s rescuers seems wrong, and smacks of ingratitude. That said, those who choose to render (or attempt to render) aid – kind, giving souls that they may be – do not thereby earn an exemption from the requirement that they exercise due care. 

Generally, here is the law in New York (taken from this case):

[O]ne does not owe a duty to come to the aid of a person in peril, whether the peril is medical or otherwise. However, one who assumes a duty to act … may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully. Where a party voluntarily assumes a duty to act, the party may not place the person to whom the duty is owed in a position of peril equal to that from which [the person] was rescued, nor may the party change the person’s position for the worse by unreasonably putting the person back into the same peril, or into a new one.

Where the alleged negligence is committed by municipal actors engaged in a governmental function, New York law requires the plaintiff to show that the municipality owed a “special duty” to the injured party, above and beyond the duty owed to the public generally. (The Court of Appeals laid out these principles in its Applewhite v. Accuhealth decision last year.)

So will Ortiz win? I don’t know. I don’t know all the facts, and I don’t know Colorado law. Time (and, perhaps, a jury) will tell. What is clear, though, is that the comments section of a news article is hardly the place to litigate the case.

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