Court ruling bolsters protections for good Samaritans in Maine

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AUGUSTA, Maine, Jan. 11, 2016 — Good Samaritans in Maine — ordinary citizens who rush to aid victims in emergencies — can recover damages if they are injured in the process, a Maine Superior Court judge has ruled.

In a recent decision in Kennebec County, Justice Robert Mullen awarded $465,000 in damages to a central Maine man who was injured while helping a truck accident victim six years ago. The groundbreaking case involved the little known “rescue doctrine,” a legal principle designed to protect good Samaritans. Only a handful of cases in the history of Maine courts have involved the rescue doctrine, and prior to Mullen’s ruling, no plaintiff had won a court decision or verdict based on it.

Trial lawyer Daniel Kagan of Berman & Simmons represented plaintiff Lawrence Pray. They were notified Jan. 6 about the judgment in Pray’s favor.

Pray, 49, was driving in his hometown of Oakland on Jan. 19, 2009, when he saw a garbage truck go out of control, cross the road, and crash into a tree. Pray called 911 and ran to the truck, where driver Craig Morrissette was trapped and crying out for help, according to a summary of facts in Justice Mullen’s decision. Morrissette had been driving too fast for the slippery road conditions and had lost control after hitting a frost heave.

The garbage truck came to rest in an angled position against the tree, so Pray climbed in through the passenger door, about three feet off the ground. Morrissette was bleeding from the head, and he asked Pray to call his father, to let him know he had been in an accident. After making the call, rescue crews arrived at the scene, so Pray jumped down from the truck. He landed awkwardly and suffered a badly broken leg. The injury ultimately required three surgeries for Pray, more than $100,000 in medical bills, and permanent loss of strength.

On behalf of Pray, attorney Kagan filed a lawsuit against Morrissette and the trash collection company for which he was working at the time of the incident.

Justice Mullen presided over a bench trial at Kennebec County Superior Court on June 30, 2015, and received additional arguments from the attorneys in the fall. The judge’s decision and judgment, dated Dec. 22, 2015, awarded $465,442 to Pray for medical costs, pain, and loss of income and future earnings.

Mullen cited the rescue doctrine in his ruling. Essentially, the doctrine says that if someone acts negligently and causes himself to be in an emergency situation, then that person can be held liable if someone is injured or killed while trying to rescue him.

The doctrine has been widely recognized and applied in many jurisdictions throughout the U.S., but it has rarely been tested in Maine, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has never explicitly adopted the doctrine.

Attorney Kagan said the decision sets an important precedent and adds a layer of protection for good Samaritans in Maine.

“This decision helps protect all of us who live and work in Maine,” Kagan said. “In a large state like ours, official help is not always close by. Instead, it falls to each of us to help one another when accidents or disaster occurs. This important ruling allows each of us to act as good Samaritans if the need arises, knowing that we too can be protected if we are hurt in the process.”

The decision reinforces Berman & Simmons’ standing as the leading law firm for plaintiffs in Maine. Lawyers at the firm have achieved numerous landmark court decisions like this one that created new protections or enhanced existing protections for people who have been harmed or injured because of someone else’s negligence. Based in Lewiston, Berman & Simmons is a statewide firm that specializes in complex personal injury and medical malpractice cases.