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Message # 705 Good Samaritan liability

mp3 #705 Drawbacks to being a Good Samaritan (mp3 file)



It may surprise you, and it may not quite sound ethical or moral or just, but as a general rule, no one has a legal duty to come to the aid of another person in trouble, no matter how great the danger or simple the rescue.
If you see an injured stranger lying in the street, you don't have a legal duty to help. You may have a moral duty, but as long as you had nothing to do with the injury and you don't have what the law calls a "special relationship" with the stranger, you can keep walking; and the injured party can't successfully sue you for damages.
The California Supreme Court once put it this way: "a person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act."
But what happens if you are a good Samaritan and you bend down to help? Well, then, watch out, because you can be sued.
Because once you start to help, you have a legal duty to exercise due care in the performance of your assistance. The law does not generally punish people for doing nothing --- it only punishes people who do something, but who do it wrong.
So you will be liable for any bodily harm that arises from your failure to exercise due care.
You also will be legally accountable if you discontinue the aid and leave the injured party in a worse position than when you found him.
Even doctors who pass the scene of an accident do not have a legal duty to treat the injured. However, a state law encourages doctors to help by providing that when a doctor "renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency," the doctor shall not be liable for any civil damages resulting from his errors. This rule does not apply to doctors taking care of emergency-room patients.
There are some specific state laws that encourage a citizen to help. For example, drivers who are involved in auto accidents, whether or not they are at fault, are required by law in California and most other states to stop and render assistance to anyone injured in that accident.
Some observers have long been uncomfortable with the rule that there is no duty to assist others in need. The California Supreme Court has called the rule "morally questionable."
Remember, however, that if a court finds you and another person have a "special relationship," then you may have a legal duty to provide at least some assistance.
In recent years, the trend in negligence law has been to "increase the number of situations in which an affirmative duty will be imposed by expanding the list of special relationships," according to a 1983 California Supreme Court decision.
What is this so called "special" relationship? It doesn't mean you have to be good friends. It is a special relationship in legal terms, not in a social context. One legal treatise explains that such special relationships are found "in any relation of dependence or of mutual dependence."
Depending on the circumstances, courts may find that special relationships exist between a teacher and a student, a parent and a baby sitter, a guard and a prisoner, an innkeeper and his guest, or a restaurant and its customer. However, restaurants are not legally bound to give hands-on assistance to a choking victim. They fulfill their duty by posting written instructions explaining how to save a victim and calling for an ambulance.
In one California case, a court ruled that an ice cream or pastry salesman who was selling to children out of a truck had a special relationship with children who bought from him and a legal duty of care for their safety as they cross the street. Perhaps the Michigan Supreme Court went the furthest when it said social companions out for an evening together have a duty to render assistance to each other if it can be done without endangering oneself.
This message is from an article in the Los Angeles Times by attorney Jeffrey Klein.

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