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Rescuers Entering the Danger Zone May Recover for Damages for Mental Distress in the District of Columbia

September 2, 2015 By Jennifer A. King

In Destefano v. Children’s National Medical Center, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals , as a matter of first impression, adopted the “rescue doctrine” and held that a plaintiff making a rescue attempt may recover damages for mental distress. 

Wendy Destefano’s six-year-old son, G.I., suffered from a seizure disorder and  frequented Children’s National Medical Center (“CNMC”).  On the date of the accident in question, Ms. Destefano, her son, and her four-year-old daughter, V.I., were returning to their car from an appointment with her son’s neurologist.  They had parked in a garage which was operated and maintained by Colonial Parking, Inc.  Ms. Destefano asked her children to back up towards the wall of the garage so she could open the car door.  When they did so, G.I. fell backwards through a vent in the wall.  This vent opened into a 25-foot air shaft.  The cover for the vent was leaning against the wall nearby.  At the time of G.I.’s fall, V.I. had been holding his hand and she screamed for her brother.  Ms. Destefano immediately bent over and reached into the hole for G.I., but could not reach him.  G.I. was rescued from the shaft and treated for numerous injuries.

Ms. Destefano, G.I., and V.I. filed suit against CNMC and Colonial Parking, Inc., for negligence.  After a month long trial, the jury found both defendants jointly and severally liable and awarded G.I. $1,560,000 and V.I. $26,000.  All parties filed an appeal to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. 

Ms. Destefano sued for negligent infliction of emotional distress, but the trial judge granted summary judgment, finding that Ms. Destefano had not shown that she was in the “zone of danger.”  The “zone of danger” rule, which has been adopted in the District of Columbia, permits recovery for emotional distress if the plaintiff was in the zone of physical danger and as a result feared for his or her own safety or the safety of a member of the plaintiff’s immediate family because of defendant’s negligence.  In granting summary judgment, the trial judge determined that Ms. Destefano physically could not have accidentally fallen into the vent because the top of the vent was just over three feet from the floor which was a little above Ms. Destefano’s waist level.  Therefore, she was outside the zone of danger. 

However, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment based upon the “rescue doctrine” and the fact that there was sufficient evidence to establish a plausible claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress on behalf of Ms. Destefano. The rescue doctrine permits recovery for an injury sustained while attempting to rescue another if defendant’s negligence caused the situation.  Ms. Destefano heard her daughter scream when her son fell and then heard her son screaming in the hole.  She immediately bent down and reached into the hole trying to get him.  At that time, she had no idea the hole dropped 25-feet down and as she lunged forward into the hole, she dropped her keys and almost fell in.  Traditionally, the rescue doctrine allows recovery for physical injury only.  However, similar to the zone of danger rule, the Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff who enters the zone of danger in a rescue attempt may recover damages for emotional distress if, because of defendant’s negligence, plaintiff feared for her own safety or the safety of an immediate family member while in the zone of danger.  As such, the evidence as to Ms. Destefano’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress was sufficient to survive summary judgment and her claim should have been submitted to the jury.