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In the Courts: NJ Supreme Court Declines to Expand ‘Rescue Doctrine’, Reiterates Pets as Legal Property
June 24, 2022 by AKC Government Relations

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the common law “rescue doctrine” does not apply to a person attempting to rescue a pet.  The rescue doctrine says that if a rescuer is hurt or put in peril due to the negligence or intentional wrongdoing of another person, the injured person can recover damages. 

The case, Samolyk v. Berthe, 2022 WL 2111910, resulted from a 2017 incident, when a 70-year-old woman jumped into a canal to try to save a dog owned by her neighbors that was struggling to stay afloat. While the dog’s owners were able to pull their pet to safety, the woman nearly drowned.  Immediately following the incident, she was found unconscious on a dock.  Purportedly, these events left the woman with brain damage.   

Prior to her death in 2021, the woman and her husband, as her guardian ad litem, sued the dog’s owners, claiming their negligence was the cause of their dog jumping into the canal, and that the “rescue doctrine” should be expanded to allow the woman to recover damages for the injuries she sustained.  

Although some other states had applied the rescue doctrine to the rescue of property, no New Jersey courts had ever done so.  

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that recovery under the rescue doctrine would not apply in this case because the pet is considered to be property under the law, not a person. Judge Jose L. Fuentes wrote for a unanimous court, “we decline to consider property, in whatever form, to be equally entitled to the unique value and protection we bestow upon human life. Notwithstanding the strong emotional attachment people may have to dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals…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 American Kennel Club (AKC) supports the traditional legal classification of animals as property, which has resulted in a predictable and reliable system that protects both animals and their owners’ rights; and believes that it is important that the traditional legal treatment of animals as property continues.  For more information, please visit AKC’s Legal Status of Animals key issue page

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