Ouellette v. Carde 612 A.2d 687 (R.I., 1992)

The defendant Orin V. Carde was repairing the muffler on his automobile when the vehicle fell, pinning him beneath. When the car fell, the jack pierced the gas tank and gasoline spilled out onto Carde. He wiggled out from underneath his vehicle and from a telephone in his garage, called Beverly Ouellette to assist him. When Ouellette arrived, she entered through the front door of the home and made her way to the garage through the laundry room. As she entered the garage, she found Carde lying on the ground beneath the dangling phone.

Ouellette attempted to call a rescue squad but was unable to get a dial tone. Carde told Ouellette to press the electric door opener, which she did. When the door was about three-quarters open, the gas ignited in an explosion.

Both Ouellette and Carde escaped alive but were severely burned. Ouellette was taken directly to the emergency room where she was treated for third-degree burns. She was released later that day but was readmitted one week later. She stayed in the hospital for fifteen days during which time she had a series of operations and a skin graft. She was subsequently released and entered a home-care program through which a nurse would visit and change her bandages three times a day. In addition to the physical injuries, Ouellette experienced extreme anxiety and panic attacks. She received treatment for anxiety over a three-year period and was still taking medication at the time of the trial.

Ouellette filed a civil action in negligence in Kent County Superior Court on February 25, 1987. The complaint requested money damages for personal injuries sustained in the fire at Care’s home on March 18, 1986. A five-day jury trial commenced on March 27, 1990, during which Carde filed two motions for directed verdict. The trial justice denied the first motion and reserved decision on the second motion filed at the end of the presentation of evidence. The case was submitted to the jury on April 2, 1990, and the following day the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ouellette for $85,000 plus interest and costs. The court thereafter reconsidered and denied Carde’s second motion for directed verdict. Carde then filed a motion for a new trial.

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island heard the appeal. Carde’s first claim was that the trial court erred by not allowing the issue of comparative negligence before the jury and in the jury instructions. He argued that the state’s comparative negligence statute should include the rescue doctrine for public policy reasons. However, because Carde did not assert that Ouellette acted recklessly, the trial court did not err in denying the comparative negligence jury instruction. Carde’s remaining arguments also failed to persuade the Supreme Court which upheld the trial court’s decision.

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