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Good Samaritan Laws: Should they include a duty to rescue?

NO ACCOUNTABILITY

The tragic drowning death on July 9, 2017, of 31 year old Jamel Dunn in Florida, has sparked a debate about the law’s failure to hold accountable the teens who not only could have rescued him, but recorded the drowning, laughing at and taunting Dunn as he begged for help. The five teens, ranging in age from 14-18 years old, never reported the death, and on July 12, 2017, Dunn’s family filed a missing person’s report. On July 14, Dunn’s body was found.

Dunn’s sister became aware of the video of her brother’s drowning made by the teens and posted it on social media. The outrage was instantaneous and overwhelming. The fact that not one of the teens tried to help Dunn—not even to place a call to 911—is stunning. Equally disturbing is the fact that at first the police and the district attorney stated that no laws had been broken and therefore they could not charge the teens with any crime. As the public demand for accountability grew, the police announced that they have asked the district attorney to pursue charges against the teens for failure to report a death, a misdemeanor.

GOOD SAMARITAN LAWS

The lack of accountability in the law for something as morally reprehensible as the above-described drowning death of Dunn is due to a long-standing principle in law of not requiring a person to affirmatively act to rescue someone unless there is a special relationship between the person in distress and the putative rescuer. Put another way, there is no duty to rescue unless certain circumstances or exceptions to the no duty rule exist, such as where a parent has a duty to give aid to his/her child, and a police officer has a duty to respond to an accident or emergency.

Of course, just because there is no legal duty to come to the aid of a person in peril does not mean that there is no moral or ethical duty to do so. People who do respond to those in distress out of a sense of human decency—true good Samaritans—have, however, sometimes been sued for their good actions when the outcome was not what was desired (e.g. CPR was administered and the person still died). These civil actions were the genesis for Good Samaritan laws which protect someone who renders aid from liability. All 50 states have some version of this type of protection; Georgia’s version is found at O.C.G.A. 51-1-29, and protects people who render emergency care from civil liability: “Any person…who in good faith renders emergency care at the scene of an accident or emergency to the victim or victims thereof without making any charge therefor shall not be liable for any civil damages as a result of any act or omission by such person in rendering emergency care or as a result of any act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured person.”

DUTY TO RESCUE

The issue raised by the horrific incident in Florida is whether these Good Samaritan laws should include an affirmative duty to act, or duty to rescue. Other countries have such affirmative duties on the national level; Argentina, Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Russia, to name a few, require people to render aid even if that aid is merely calling the authorities to the scene of an emergency. In some of these countries, the violation of this duty can result in prison time. In the United States, only Vermont and Minnesota have included affirmative duties to render aid in their Good Samaritan laws. Minnesota’s Good Samaritan law requires that people provide reasonable assistance to others that have been exposed to or are in peril of grave physical harm. Reasonable assistance can be calling 911, and no aid is required if it would subject the person to danger. The law protects good faith efforts to help people in an emergency.

Vermont’s Good Samaritan law requires that a person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall…give reasonable assistance to the exposed person unless that assistance or care is being provided by others. The law goes on to shield the person providing the reasonable assistance from liability from civil damages unless the acts constitute gross negligence, or unless the person giving the assistance receives or expects to receive remuneration, two common exceptions to Good Samaritan law protection.

If the Dunn drowning had occurred in Vermont or Minnesota, the teens who taunted Dunn while he drowned would be accountable for failing to render aid. We would still be disturbed by the fact that they recorded Dunn rather than assist him, by the fact that they lacked the basic impulse to help a fellow human being by even calling 911. But at least the law could hold them accountable for that failure. Now, we can only hold them accountable for their actions after the fact, for failing to report the result of their inaction, Dunn’s death. Failing to report a death is a misdemeanor because it does not include any culpability for the death itself. The police officer in Florida stated that if this charge could be brought and the teens convicted of it, justice would be served. That statement, as is whether Good Samaritan laws should include an affirmative duty to render aid, is up for debate.

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