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Is There a Duty to Rescue in Maine?

caravans-1368753-m.jpgAs we’ve mentioned in other posts, an injured person in Maine who sues for negligence must show: the defendant owed a duty to the injured person, the defendant breached this duty and the breach proximately caused an injury. The duty can be a duty to refrain from doing something or a duty to do something. Maine law has no general obligation for a person to act to protect someone from a harm that he or she did not create. This is true even if the person knows that he or she must act if the other person is to be protected or saved from harm. Thus, without liability, a person may ignore the cries of a drowning man.

A 2009 case challenged this rule in a lawsuit brought by the estate of a person who died after the defendant failed to call for emergency assistance. The case arose when a man and woman in a turbulent relationship were taking some time off at the request of the woman. She was drinking beer with friends at a friend’s trailer in the trailer park where she lived and left after having four or five beers to call her daughter. After she walked back to her own trailer, the man showed up and she asked him to leave. He refused and wouldn’t let her leave either.

The woman and the man’s estate disagreed about what happened next. The woman claimed she tried to call a neighbor on her cell phone to get the man removed from her trailer and that the man got a rifle from his car and broke her phone. The Estate claimed the rifle was already inside the woman’s trailer.

As the woman exited her trailer, she heard a sound like a firecracker and saw the man fall, saying “it was an accident.” She didn’t see blood and didn’t try to see if he was hurt. Instead she walked back to her friends, telling them the man had pretended to shoot himself. Her friends saw him lying on the steps to her trailer. When they came to check on him, he was still mumbling that it was an accident. A friend asked him if he was shot, but he was having trouble breathing. The other friend called 911.

The man died at the hospital from a gunshot wound to his abdomen, but could have been saved if he got to the hospital 5-10 minutes sooner. His Estate sued the woman alleging negligent failure to assist among other causes of action.

The woman eventually filed a summary judgment motion on the claim for negligent failure to assist. The Estate argued that the man was the woman’s guest and she owed him a duty to seek emergency assistance in these circumstances.

The Superior Court granted the summary judgment on the basis that there is no affirmative duty to rescue someone even if he or she is in serious danger of dying. With respect to the specific circumstances, the Superior Court found the man was a trespasser, not a guest in the woman’s home.

The Estate appealed arguing that the Superior Court should not have determined the man was a trespasser and that the woman had an affirmative duty to aid another person in peril. The Maine Supreme Court disagreed.

The Law Court reasoned that trespass in a negligence suit in Maine changes the standard of care in a premises liability case. Further, the Estate had previously admitted that the woman had asked the decedent to leave and he refused, which made him a trespasser. In Maine, the only duty a landowner has to a trespasser is avoiding acting wantonly, willfully or recklessly. A trespasser who sues must show more than negligence in order to recover.

The Law Court explained that the woman’s failure to contact emergency assistance was not wanton, willful or reckless because she had not created the danger to him, nor act in a way that would require a landowner to act affirmatively to help. The Estate had asked the court to recognize a new rule –that a person has a duty to get emergency assistance through reasonable means if an injury is witnessed. It argued that a special relationship was created through the observation of the injury.

However, the Law Court declined to adopt this new rule, noting that there are special relationships that do give rise to such a duty to rescue such as an employer-employee, parent and child or innkeeper and guest. The court explained these relationships are different from the relationship in this case because in those relationships, one party has control over the other or the location. The appellate court explained that to create a duty in this case where no special relationships existed would potentially create limitless liability.

If you are injured or a loved one is killed due to somebody else’s negligence, it’s important to consult an experienced wrongful death attorney to help determine appropriate theories of liability under Maine law. At Briggs & Wholey, our knowledgeable attorneys are available to answer any questions you may have. To schedule a free consultation with an experienced advocate, please contact Briggs & Wholey, LLC through our website today.

More Blog Posts:

Study Claims Drivers in Maine and Across the U.S. Are Distracted More Than They Realize, Maine Personal Injury Lawyers Blog, June 13, 2013
One Hurt in Negligent York County Traffic Wreck, Maine Personal Injury Lawyers Blog, June 7, 2013