Gina Calogero, Esq.

In a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that a person cannot sue for injuries suffered while trying to save a pet dog from peril. The ruling applies to all personal property, including domesticated animals, which are considered “chattels” in New Jersey. That’s just a fancy word for “property.”

The case considered whether to expand a legal principle known as the Rescue Doctrine. At common law, a person who voluntarily placed themselves in danger in order to save another person, was unable to sue because of their contributory negligence in assuming the risk. Justice Cardozo opened the door to an exception, writing that “Danger invites rescue” in a 1921 case before New York’s highest court, Wagner v International Railway Co. 232 N.Y. 176, 133 N.E. 437 (1921). In New Jersey, the doctrine now means that a plaintiff injured in the effort to save a human life in peril can sue the person(s) responsible for creating the perilous situation. See, Saltsman v Corazo, 721 A. 2d 1000, 317 N.J. Super 237 (App. Div. 1998). The plaintiff was hurt when he stepped in to break up a fight. He sued the person who allegedly instigated the fight (by insulting the girlfriends of the other three) and the owner of the premises for failing to provide adequate security. 

But what if the injured party was trying to save a drowning pup, rather than a human? The answer is, unfortunately, no, as decided by the NJ state Supreme Court in Samolyk v Berthe in June 2022. Ann Samolyk suffered brain damage and nearly drowned after jumping into a canal to rescue her neighbor’s dog, who had fallen in. She sued the neighbor.  

The Court held that it would be against public policy to expand the Rescue Doctrine for any type of personal property, whether an heirloom, a work of art, or a beloved pet, because property does not rise to the same level of “all human life [which] is equally precious.” Writing for a unanimous court, Judge Fuentes (temporarily assigned) stated:

The Court declines to expand the rescue doctrine to include injuries sustained to protect property, except in settings in which the plaintiff has acted to shield human life. 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. The risk protected by the rescue doctrine is calibrated only by the reasonableness of the actions taken by the rescuer because all human life is equally precious. The same calculation, considering the necessarily subjective attachments to property, would prove untenable.

For those of us who love our pets and consider them part of our family, this may seem a harsh result. But on a positive note, the court reaffirmed existing case law by recognizing that people have a “strong emotional attachment” to their pets. The take-away from this decision is that although pets are still property in New Jersey, and while they do not rise to the status of humans, they are still unique and hold a special place in the family. Unlike a chair or a lamp, a dog, cat or other pet is irreplaceable.

Are you seeking legal advice about your pet? Give us a call at 973-744-2980 or fill out our online form.

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