On a Friday afternoon, at a busy intersection in Fairfax County, Virginia, a heavily loaded utility van ran a red light at high speed and struck a Cadillac sedan in a t-bone collision, throwing it 30 yards from the point of impact.
While driving by the accident, our client, John, identified himself as a trained Emergency Medical Technician to the troopers working the scene, and offered to assist.
At the Trooper’s direction, John parked his car behind the rear of the Cadillac. He gathered his first aid kit, and not seeing any occupants, walked past the Cadillac; he thought the trooper wanted him to assist the van’s occupant. John returned to the Cadillac at the trooper’s instruction.
As he approached the Cadillac, his experience led him to believe that the trooper had secured the accident scene. This was the usual protocol when he had helped injured motorists in the past.
The accident had so badly damaged the Cadillac that its driver was laying at an angle in the car’s passenger compartment. The driver’s feet were crushed against the center console and his upper body lay in the center/passenger side of the car. Given the extensive driver’s side damage, John entered the car from the right rear passenger door. He could only gain partial entry; he placed one foot inside the car and kept the other on the ground.
John determined that his patient’s name was Michael. His voice was barely audible, and he had a large head gash, suggesting a closed head injury. John heard gurgling sounds in Michael’s throat, which meant a blood obstructed airway. As Michael gasped, John established a clear airway, and stabilized his head in such a way that the gurgling disappeared and breathing was restored.
Due to the Cadillac’s deformed shape, John knew that responders would need the Jaws of Life to get Michael out of his car and into an ambulance. John continued to hold Michael’s head steady and reassured him with a calm voice. Although his patient was going into shock, John knew he could do nothing more than help Michael breathe.
As John continued to stabilize Michael’s breathing, Michael went into shock. Michael began shuddering and his feet began kicking uncontrollably. John continued to hold Michael so he wouldn’t further injure himself. Focused on Michael, John suddenly heard a deafening roar. As he looked-up, the Cadillac suddenly lurched backwards at a high rate of speed; Michael, in his distress, had accidentally stepped on the accelerator.
John vaguely remembers flying through the air, then landing on the ground far from his patient. He heard voices asking “Is he dead?” and looked up at the blue sky wondering whether he had in fact died. John’s assumption that the trooper had secured the Cadillac was incorrect.
John suffered injuries to his neck, shoulder, brachial plexus, right elbow, left knee and right ankle, and his foot was crushed by the Cadillac as it ran over him.
We brought a claim on John’s behalf against the driver of the utility van. Over the course of the case, all three participants – the van driver, Michael, and John – were accused of negligence.
The van driver’s negligence was clear. He ran a red light in violation of Section 46.2-833 of the Virginia Code. He suggested that a tractor trailer obscured his view of the traffic light, a suggestion that other witnesses disputed, but the statute required him to stop, even if there was a tractor trailer involved. He committed what the law calls negligence per se and that was the end of that discussion. He was negligent.
Perhaps in an effort to make his negligence seem too remote to be the cause of John’s injuries, or to find someone else to share the blame, the van driver suggested that Michael, the driver of the Cadillac, could have avoided the collision. That theory was never supported by the evidence. Even if the van driver had evidence that Michael was negligent, that evidence would not exonerate the van driver because Virginia law says that when the negligence of more than one person causes an injury, each of those negligence actors is liable to the injured party for the entire sum. That rule is called joint and several liability.
The next question was whether John was also at fault for getting into the wrecked (and running) Cadillac. Did he unreasonably put himself in harm’s way? Fortunately, the law protects good Samaritans. The rule is known as the rescue doctrine. It says that if:
(1) Someone (in this case, Michael) is in imminent and serious danger, and
(2) The injured party (John) did not create the danger, and
(3) The injured party did not rashly and recklessly disregard all considerations for his own safety in attempting to rescue the person who is in danger, then the injured party will not be considered to have been contributorily negligent in exposing himself to the danger.
Justice would not be served by allowing the van driver to avoid responsibility just because John stepped in to help. However, even this rule involves a number of judgment calls, which is typical of almost every situation where someone is accused of being negligent. Negligence cases where there is a hard-and-fast rule – a building code or a statute requiring drivers to stop at red lights – are the exception. In almost every other case assigning negligence is a matter of opinion.
All of these issues were ultimately resolved in John’s favor, a more difficult question, though, was whether the van driver’s negligence was a proximate cause of John’s injury. The van driver had nothing to do with the Cadillac’s unexpected acceleration, so was the van driver’s negligence too remote to be the cause of John’s injuries? That is a entirely separate question [link to proximate cause page].
Negligence is a failure to use ordinary care. In some cases, ordinary care is defined by a statute or ordinance. For example, if the building code requires stairs to have handrails between 34 and 38 inches high, then a builder who builds a stair with rails at other heights is negligent. His attorney is not permitted to come into court and say otherwise. Usually, though, ordinary care is whatever an ordinary and prudent person would do under the circumstances. In those cases, the definition of negligence is a judgment call. The fact pattern in this case illustrates acts that are, or might be, negligent depending on circumstances. The circumstances faced by each participant has a great deal to do with whether he or she is negligent and whether that negligence exposes that person to liability.