A principle that allows individuals to take action in the face of a sudden or urgent need for aid, without being subject to normal standards of reasonable care. Also called imminent peril doctrine, or sudden peril doctrine.
The emergency doctrine allows people to act in critical situations that call for quick action—a fire, an automobile crash, a collapsing building—without danger of recrimination. An example of someone who might be covered under the emergency doctrine is a person who performs cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a heart attack victim and in so doing breaks several of the victim's ribs. Another example is when a driver, surprised by a pedestrian who steps out from between two parked cars, swerves to miss the pedestrian but then hits another car.
The emergency doctrine also covers situations in which an individual acted in good faith when disaster seemed imminent even though ultimately it was not. There is, however, a fine distinction between the emergency doctrine and the rescue doctrine, which requires that one who places a person in peril or in a situation with the appearance of imminent peril owes a duty of reasonable care to one attempting to rescue the person from the peril or appearance of peril. In Harris v. Oaks Shopping Center, Cal. App. 4th 206 (1999), a sand sculpture being installed in a mall appeared to be about to collapse. Harris, a mall employee, rushed over to push a woman and her small child out of the way. In his rush, he fell and injured his back. He filed suit, but the jury found that since the sculpture did not fall, there was no imminent danger; moreover, there was no evidence of negligence on the part of the mall or the sand sculptors. Harris appealed, stating that the jury should have been instructed that since he acted on what he saw as an imminent threat, he had no obligation to prove actual negligence. He reasonably believed that the sculpture was about to collapse. The appellate court agreed and sent the case back to trial court for a new trial, in which the jury was to consider whether Harris acted reasonably under the circumstances. The court did, however, note that it was the rescue doctrine that applied in this case because the plaintiff's injuries stemmed from the attempted rescue, not an actual collapsed structure.
Alexander, Ken, and Eric Wade. 2001. "Companies Prepare to Overcome Legal, Physical Effects of Disaster." Houston Business Journal (October 29).
Pedestrian Injury Legal Info Center. Available online at <www.pedestrianinjury.com> (accessed August 11, 2003).