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The Problems of Being A Good Samaritan

This 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 don’t have 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 if you want to help? What if you see someone in danger and you want to intercede and help them out? What happens if you are a good Samaritan you step in to help? Well, in this article I am going to discuss some of the pitfall you could be up against.


Let me begin by that you could end up being sued. 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 nonfeasance–doing nothing–it only punishes malfeasance–doing something, but doing it wrong. So you will be liable for any bodily harm that arises from your failure to exercise due care.

But guess what? 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 or her.

You need to think through, or even pre plan your actions before stepping in and using any type of forced to defend others. If you end up using deadly force you could be in big legal trouble. You have to be ready to face the specifics of statutory law in your area. I recommend learning your state laws on this matter. Once you know the laws, create your own personal rules for when you are willing to step in and help.

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.” One legal commentator has said the law simply does not “recognize the moral obligation of common decency and common humanity.”

To be able to step in and assist, you have to rely on stituational awareness. Being aware of a potential threat allows you to have options and make clear headed decisions if you notice a potential situation early enough, including avoiding it or escaping before it gets out of hand. If you cannot, then you are ready to handle the situation.

In most places, common low usually states that you are justified in using force, including deadly force, to protect yourself or another person from what can be perceived as imminent serious bodily harm or death. You have to check with your state to learn what the specifics are, but there are three components to base your thought on.

  1. The attackers intent
  2. The attackers ability to inflict death or bodily harm
  3. The immediate nature of the situation

The are the standards that allow you to apply deadly force if needed. In your mind you have to ask yourself “Do I really have to do this?” If the answer is “Yes” then the situation probably warrants defense.

When asking yourself if you really need to do something you have to create personal rules under non-stressed conditions that will allow you to have a plan as to how you will react rationally during a situation. In your plan, think about when, if and how you will use force to defend others. This will you will reduce the chance that you will make and ill-informed decision at the spur of the moment.

You also have to consider if there is a special relationship between yourself and the person you are defending. 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.”

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.

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.

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 may be one area of law where knowing the legal rules should not govern your behavior. When faced with an emergency, instead of thinking of the legal rule that says you don’t have a legal duty to help, perhaps you should think of another rule; the one that says all rules are made to be broken.

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