Chapter 65: Rescue Doctrine

§65.1 Generally

The Case : Eaton v. McClain, 891 S.W.2d 587 (Tenn. 1994).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff fell down the steps in her daughter's home when she attempted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She thought the basement door was the bathroom door.

The Bottom Line :

  • "The policy considerations underlying two other traditional exceptions to the doctrine of contributory negligence, the sudden emergency doctrine, Johnson v. Copeland, [158 S.W.2d 986, 988, (Tenn. 1942)], and the rescue doctrine, Ruth v. Ruth, [372 S.W.2d 285, 288-89 (Tenn. 1963)], have been implicitly subsumed by our decision in McIntyre and should also impact the jury's apportionment of fault between the parties in an appropriate case." 891 S.W.2d at 592.
  • "In summary, the percentage of fault assigned to each party should be dependent upon all the circumstances of the case, including such factors as: (1) the relative closeness of the causal relationship between the conduct of the defendant and the injury to the plaintiff; FN9 (2) the reasonableness of the party's conduct in confronting a risk, such as whether the party knew of the risk, or should have known of it;FN10 (3) the extent to which the defendant failed to reasonably utilize an existing opportunity to avoid the injury to the plaintiff;FN11 (4) the existence of a sudden emergency requiring a hasty decision;FN12 (5) the significance of what the party was attempting to accomplish by the conduct, such as an attempt to save another's life; FN13 and (6) the party's particular capacities, such as age, maturity, training, education, and so forth. FN14
    FN9 This factor is derived from the doctrine of remote contributory negligence. For a discussion of that doctrine, Arnold v. Hayslett, [655 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tenn. 1983)]; Street v. Calvert, [541 S.W.2d 576, 585 (Tenn. 1976)].

    FN10 This factor is derived from the doctrine of 'secondary implied assumption of risk' that was abolished Perez v. McConkey, [872 S.W.2d 897 (Tenn. 1994)].

    FN11 This factor is derived from the doctrine of last clear chance. For a discussion of this doctrine, Roseberry v. Lippner, [574 S.W.2d 726, 728 (Tenn. 1978)]; Street v. Calvert, [541 S.W.2d 576, 583-84 (Tenn. 1976)].

    FN12 This factor is derived from the doctrine of sudden emergency. Johnson v. Copeland, [158 S.W.2d 986, 988 (Tenn. 1942)].

    FN13 This factor is derived from the rescue doctrine. Ruth v. Ruth, [372 S.W.2d 285, 288-89 (Tenn. 1963)].

    FN14 This factor is derived from pre-McIntyre law as to minors. Arnold v. Hayslett, [655 S.W.2d 941 (Tenn. 1983)]; Standridge v. Godsey, [226 S.W.2d 277 (Tenn. 1950)]. We have relied heavily on the Uniform Comparative Fault Act, 12 U.L.A. 42 (1977) in formulating these guidelines. The Committee Comment to § 2(b) of the Act provides:

    In comparing the fault of the several parties for the purpose of obtaining percentages there are a number of implications arising from the concept of fault. The conduct of the claimant or of any defendant may be more or less at fault, depending on all the circumstances including such matters as (1) whether the conduct was mere inadvertence or engaged in with an awareness of the danger involved; (2) the magnitude of the risk created by the conduct, including the number of persons endangered and the potential seriousness of the injury; (3) the significance of what the actor was trying to attain by his conduct; (4) the actor's superior or inferior capacities; and (5) the particular circumstances, such as the existence of an emergency requiring a hasty decision.

    In determining the relative fault of the parties, the fact-finder will also give consideration to the relative closeness of the causal relationship of the negligent conduct of the defendant and the harm to the plaintiff. Degrees of fault and proximity of causation are inextricably mixed, as a study of last clear chance indicates, and that common law doctrine has been absorbed in this Act.

    This approach was adopted by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Watson v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Ins. Co., 469 So.2d 967, 973-74 (La. 1985)."
    Id. at 592.
  • "We do not wish to imply from our enumeration of these factors that they constitute an exclusive list for the purpose of apportioning fault between the negligent parties. As stated above, the fault apportionment question is ultimately dependent upon all the circumstances of the case; and juries will continue, as they have in the past, to rely upon their common sense and ordinary experience in apportioning fault. Nor do we wish to imply that these factors will not need to be revised or expanded at some future date as we are presented with specific factual situations. We have only attempted in this opinion to give general guidance to the bench and bar; and any unresolved questions with respect to the factors must wait for another day. Again, while we realize that all these factors will not be applicable to every case, we believe that this approach is superior to leaving trial courts and juries completely without standards in this process. FN15
    FN15 One of our concerns is that when a jury is given absolutely no guidance in its apportionment of fault, that finding is effectively unreviewable by an appellate court. This fact stands in marked distinction to a finding of contributory negligence under the pre-McIntyre system, which was reviewable because the jury was charged as to the elements of negligence. Although the application of the elements of negligence to the facts of the case under the old system was often difficult, at least the appellate court had some standard by which to judge the jury's actions."
    Id. at 593.

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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