Court of Appeals Adopts Rescue Doctrine

On July 23, 2015, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Destefano v. Children’s National Medical Center, No. 13-CV-679, slip op. (D.C. July 23, 2015) in which it considered, inter alia, whether to adopt the “rescue doctrine” which “‘allows an individual injured while attempting to rescue another from peril to recover in tort from the person whose negligence caused the situation.'” Id. at 21 (quoting Lee v. Luigi, Inc., 696 A.2d 1371, 1374 n.2 (D.C. 1997)). The Court of Appeals adopted the doctrine and held that a rescuer may use the doctrine to recover damages not only for physical harm but also emotional distress in the absence of physical harm. Id. at 21-25. With respect to the latter, the Court of Appeals concluded that recovery is subject to established principles applicable to claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Id. at 22-24. Accordingly, it stated that “plaintiffs who enter the zone of danger in a rescue attempt may recover damages for mental distress [in the absence of physical harm], as long as they feared for their own safety, because of the defendant’s negligence, while in the zone of danger.” Id. at 24. It further stated that “[s]uch plaintiffs can also recover damages for mental distress caused by fear for the safety of an immediate family member who was endangered by the negligent act.” Id. The Court of Appeals’ decision does not disturb long-standing precedent recognizing that professional rescuers cannot invoke the rescue doctrine. Id. at 22 n.11.

For general background about tort claims for negligence in the District of Columbia, including claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress, see Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia § 8 (2014).