Does It Pay to Be a Good Samaritan?

For Ohio friends David Kelley and Mark Kinkaid, that warm and fuzzy feeling of saving a life wasn’t enough—they now want monetary compensation from the woman they saved from a burning SUV. Sound heartless? What if these rescuers suffered permanent and disabling injuries for their heroism, including lungs damaged so badly, one man can’t carry a laundry basket upstairs? Still sound selfish? Listen closer. What if these Good Samaritans suffered such debilitating injuries to save a woman who was trying to commit suicide?

Indeed, that March day in 2009, Theresa Tanner drove off the road in an attempt to end her life. Before long, flames engulfed her SUV with her still inside, screaming for help. Kelley and Kinkaid braved barbed wire, heavy brush, and a steep embankment to reach the flaming SUV. Kelley says the image he saw still haunts him: “The flames were so hot when we got to her that her hair was melting to her head—melting. There isn’t hardly a night that goes by that I don’t wake up in a sweat, that image in my mind.”

Despite the gruesome scene, the men sprang into action. They broke windows and forced open doors to pull Tanner free, fighting heat so intense that it burned hair from Kelley’s body and melted the cell phone in his pocket. Kelley was so overcome by smoke that Kinkaid had to carry Tanner to safety. Tanner survived with critical injuries, and spent weeks recovering at a local hospital.

This heroic rescue took place in 2009, so why a lawsuit in 2011? Until recently, Kelley and Kinkaid believed they had saved an accident victim, not a suicide victim. That belief was why Kelley, a 39-year-old father of five and former self-employed contractor, was willing to endure the mounting medical bills and debilitating injuries, despite having no medical insurance. Only recently did he learn he had given so much for a woman whose auto accident was no accident at all. Then he and Kinkaid filed their lawsuit.

According to the law, Kelley and Kinkaid may have a good case under a federally recognized tort law called “The Rescue Doctrine.” This doctrine says that if the person in need of rescue acted recklessly or negligently, so as to create real danger, that person’s rescuers could be entitled to damages if they acted reasonably and could prove their injuries.

Despite his severe personal injuries and a looming legal battle, Kelley doesn’t regret his actions of that fateful day. He says, “If it happened all over again today, I would still stop and get the person out of the vehicle. A life’s a life, you know.”

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