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Rescue Doctrine Fails in Death of Good Samaritan Nurse

On March 3, 2007, nurse Brenda Reed was driving north on Route 26 near Freeport, Illinois, when she saw a car driven by Susan E. Ault lose control on an icy road and spin into a ditch. Reed pulled over and stopped to check on Ault. Shortly thereafter, driver Ellen Morrison allegedly lost control of her own vehicle and caused a collision that killed Brenda Reed while she was trying to help Ault.

Allan Reed, as independent administrator for Brenda Reed's estate, sued Susan Ault under the "rescue principle." This principle states that when a person's negligence has placed himself or a third party in peril, and another person voluntarily attempts to save the life or secure the safety of the first person and is injured in the attempt, the good samaritan may sue the negligent and imperiled person for injuries arising from the rescue attempt.

At issue in the present case was the appropriateness of jury instructions stating that Reed must prove that Ault's negligent act placed Ault herself "in a position of imminent peril or danger" for the rescue doctrine to apply. The trial jury concluded that Ault, after spinning off the road, was not necessarily in such a condition, and that therefore the rescue doctrine didn't come into play. Reed appealed.

The Illinois Appellate Court upheld the appropriateness of the jury instructions and the discretion of the trial court judge in giving them. While the acts of good samaritans are always welcome, those they rescue are legally liable to them only when the peril to the endangered party is clearly imminent.

(Source: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Vol. 158, No. 152, August 3, 2012)