Legal Responsibility in Emergencies
Legal Responsibility in Emergencies
Although unexpected, emergencies are a regular part of life. People today may be forced to confront natural disasters, serious accidents and even terrorist activities. The law provides special protection to those who furnish aid during emergencies, and this article briefly discusses some of the most important principles.
Generally, a person facing an emergency is not held to the same standard of care as someone in ordinary circumstances. Emergencies are typically sudden and unforeseen, yet call for immediate action. Persons involved may feel excited or pressured and have inadequate time for thought. They may need to make quick, impulsive decisions. They cannot be held to the same level of judgment and skill as someone with a full opportunity to reflect and weigh all of the options.
"Good Samaritan" Laws
The law recognizes these limitations but encourages volunteers to help. Nearly every state in the country has adopted so-called "Good Samaritan" laws either by statute or at common law. "Good Samaritan" laws encourage individuals to provide emergency care to persons who are injured or in danger by immunizing rescuers from liability for their ordinary negligence, so long as they act in good faith. The goal is to promote rescue efforts by reducing the fears of being sued. At the time they were first enacted, many of these laws applied only to medical professionals, but most have now been expanded to include laypersons as well.
Although the specifics of Good Samaritan laws in each state vary, many features are in common. Typically, these laws do not require persons to provide any assistance to those in danger. First and foremost, our common law does not impose an affirmative obligation to act on anyone no matter how grave another's emergency or how readily available the means of rescue.
For those who do respond, however, Good Samaritan laws provide partial immunity so long as the rescuer is a volunteer; first aid must not be given in exchange for any reward or financial compensation. Once emergency aid is given, those responding must not leave their victims unless: 1) it is necessary in order to call for professional help, 2) someone of at least equal competence or ability can take over, or 3) continuing to provide assistance puts the rescuers themselves in serious danger.
Under most Good Samaritan laws, the accident victim need not be suffering from a life-threatening injury for an emergency to exist. The person receiving the help, however, must agree to the assistance. Technically, one who otherwise aids a person without his or her consent may be considered liable of an assault or battery. In some instances, consent may be implied if the person in danger is unconscious, delusional or intoxicated. Consent to treat a minor may also be implied if the child's parent or guardian cannot be reached.
Typically, Good Samaritan laws do not apply if the rescuer caused the emergency in the first place. In addition, for partial immunity to apply, the rescue attempts must be reasonably necessary. For example, a Good Samaritan may pull a passenger from a vehicle at an accident scene. If the vehicle was on fire at the time and the passenger may have otherwise died in the blaze, the rescuer may be justified even if the movement aggravates the passenger's injuries and causes paralysis. If, however, the vehicle was not on fire and there was no imminent threat to the person inside, moving the passenger unnecessarily may be considered irresponsible and expose the rescuer to civil liability. Regardless of the rescuer's good intentions, moreover, reckless or grossly negligent conduct is not protected.
The necessity and reasonableness of the rescuer's conduct are judged from his or her overall perception of the nature and severity of the danger presented. There are a number of decisions involving paralysis specifically, and liability turns on the unique facts of each case. Compare, for example, Botte v. Pomeroy, 497 So.2d 1275 (Fla. App. 4 Dist. 1986) (apartment complex may be liable where its employee moved body of plaintiff, who had previously broken neck, thus rendering plaintiff quadriplegic) with Moyer v. Grier, 1989 WL 167405 *5 (Del. Super. 1989) ("act of shaking an apparently unconscious drowning person, floating in a swimming pool under the emergency conditions existing at the time" did not amount to willful, wanton or gross negligence so as to render rescuer liable under Delaware's Good Samaritan statute).
For many, there is a natural instinct to aid others in immediate need. The law aims to support and protect our best, common sense efforts to provide help in such emergency circumstances.
 The term "Good Samaritan" is based on a New Testament parable in which a native of a then unpopular region, Samaria, was the only passerby to aid a man seriously wounded by thieves. See Luke 10:25-37.