Consumer Law

Who Gets the Bill The High Price of Rescue

The stories are riveting. Mountain climbers go missing on Mt. Hood. Hikers buried after an avalanche. Skiers trapped on a mountaintop after a sudden storm. Campers lost in the wilderness after having strayed off the trail.

And the ending to the stories is sometimes tragedy, sometimes relief. However, the question often unanswered is: "Who gets the bill for the rescue?"

Some Laws Require Reimbursement for Rescue

Last year the nation's attention was drawn to the frightful avalanche on Oregon's Mount Hood that led to the death of one climber and the hunt for his two companions. The ominous skies over the 11,249-foot high mountain peak had dumped eight inches of snow in one night, leading to treacherous potential avalanche conditions.

Over the past 25 years, Mount Hood has claimed several victims in climbing accidents. In May 1986, seven students and two adults died on the mountain after they had dug a snow cave during a sudden storm. In December 2006, a group of three experienced climbers died on Mount Hood during a blizzard.

The recent tragedy prompted a candidate for Washington governor to call for a law requiring mountain climbers to carry electronic locator devices when they are climbing Mount Hood.

Opponents, rescuers and climbers, argue these devices would give a false sense of security and might lead to riskier behavior, especially by novice climbers.

Several states have laws requiring those who are assisted by rescue teams to reimburse the costs of the rescue. New Hampshire is one of the few states that vigorously enforces such laws, and suspends the camping, fishing, hunting or climbing licenses of those who don't pay their bills.

Legal Principles Impact Who Pays

You might wonder: How you can be asked to pay for rescue when you didn't ask to be rescued? If there's a state law in place requiring this type of payment, the law provides the reason for requiring payment. But even without such a law, basic principles of contract law hold.

If you've willingly accepted the help of a rescue team, it's an "implied contract" between you and the rescuers. When you benefit from the rescue services, but don't pay for them, the rescuer could also claim that you were "unjustly enriched," another way to recover money owed to the rescuers.

Payment Disputes?

The state where the rescue efforts are provided governs payment for those services. Not just heroic rescues like mountaintop searches, but also ambulance trips, physician care on the ski slopes and medical care for a boating or swimming accident could be considered a rescue.

If you've received bills for emergency services or medical care, and you're don't want to pay, contact the providers directly to try to resolve it. If you can't reach a satisfactory resolution, seek the advice of an attorney who practices in the state where the services were provided. 'Don't risk of breaking the state's laws or you might be refused a license or permit if you return to that state for recreation.

Taking your life into your hands is up to you, but those rescuing you deserve credit and pay for rescue in dire conditions.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was unconscious when I was rescued. Do I still have to pay the rescuers?
  • Can I dispute an emergency room bill if I didn't want to go to the hospital, but the rescuers made me?
  • If I have to pay for rescue, does that mean the rescuers have liability towards me for how they conduct the rescue? What if rescuers hurt me or my property - does responsibility go both ways?
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