Exploring Henry Ruggs Civil Liability; What about Citizen Rescuers?
(WARNING: Graphic details within this article)
Henry Ruggs’s actions on the morning of November 2nd has had widespread impact. As a direct result of his driving under the influence at speeds of 156 miles per hour, the life of 23-year-old Tina Tintor was lost. The criminal charges against Ruggs have been well-explored, as he faces more than 50 years in prison. Our very own writers at Conduct Detrimental have provided great analysis by looking closely at his criminal charges1,as well as Top Golf’s potential liability2. Needless to say, it hasn’t looked well so far for Henry Ruggs. There are no wins in sight for him in criminal prosecution.
What about civil litigation? Looking at possible claims, it’s obvious the deceased has various claims against Henry Ruggs, including wrongful death. There are also third parties who may have claims: the citizens who attempted to rescue Tina Tintor from her burning vehicle.
In civil cases, the vast majority of states apply a rule called the “Rescue Doctrine.” Under this rule, the wrongdoer is liable for injuries caused to third parties within the commission of a reasonable rescue attempt. Could the individuals in this case recover under the Rescue Doctrine?
Though there isn’t any evidence of physical injury to the rescuers, they would likely be able to recover if physical injury did occur. However, in absence of such injury, the courts will likely be faced with a different type of harm: emotional distress. Two standalone civil claims exist in Nevada as ways to recover for emotional distress: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED).
Tony Rodriguez, one of the citizen rescuers, explained his tragic experience to KTNV, Las Vegas’s local news channel3. Noticing a car in flames and cries for help, Rodriguez attempted to cut Tinton free from her seatbelt. As the flames grew rapidly, he realized that his attempts were futile. He heard the breaths of the victim and noticed her blood on his hands as he decided to give up. Tinton is thought to have died shortly thereafter. Upon returning home, he prayed for Tinton and couldn’t fall asleep for over 24 hours.
These events were undoubtedly very tragic for Rodriguez. No amount of money will make an individual whole following a catastrophe such as this. But does he have the ability to recover money through litigation? Looking at both claims, it may be difficult to make his case.
In Nevada, NIED requires either physical or emotional distress arising out of negligent conduct that is extreme or outrageous. “Extreme and outrageous” has proven to be an extremely difficult threshold to meet. However, looking over Nevada case law, it seems his conduct may fulfill this element. Instead, Rodriguez’s trouble will come from Ruggs’s state of mind.
As mentioned, NIED requires the wrongdoer to have a negligent state of mind. This exists when there is a reasonable duty of care owed, but the wrongdoer fails to provide that level of care. By contrast, a reckless state of mind requires that an individual provides no care at all, despite knowledge that care is required. Ruggs didn’t just miss the mark, he completely failed to provide any care whatsoever. If Rodriguez brings an NIED claim, this may lead to a rare situation in which the defendant argues for a heightened state of fault to avoid liability. This would lead to no recovery for Rodriguez under NIED.
So Ruggs has a higher degree of fault, does this mean Rodriguez can’t recover whatsoever? Not quite. He still has a potential claim for IIED, which provides for recovering from reckless wrongdoers. Also, as I explained before, Ruggs’s conduct could be seen as extreme and outrageous. Nevada common law also requires that an individual suffer severe emotional distress. This requires physical proof in the form of a doctor note or something similar. As long as Rodriguez can provide this proof, a prima facie case for IIED would be established.
One major problem exists for Rodriguez, however. Nevada limits IIED recovery to family members. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Nevada common law which allows rescuers to recover. The courts reason that the relationship between rescuers and individuals in peril is not close enough to warrant recovery.
Both the NIED and IIED claims are unlikely to be possible recovery for the potential mental distress that was imposed upon Rodriguez and the other rescuers, regardless of the level of severity and lifelong impact.
Time for a policy change in Nevada?
I find the potential lack of available recovery disturbing. The fact that only family members can legally recover in this situation bothers me. It leaves open the potential of an estranged parent recovering but closes the door on Good Samaritans administering life-saving aid. It may be time for a policy change in Nevada to provide for recovery in cases similar to this. Special relationships should extend beyond family members. One could argue that an individual reasonably trying to save another’s life constitutes a relationship as special as any other.
Britton Yoder is a 1L at Penn State – Dickinson Law