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Can You Be Sued for Not Stopping to Help?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

When you come across a person in distress -- y'know, the person drowning, choking, bleeding or burning (in the literal and not Alicia Keyes kind of way) -- can you be sued for not stopping to help?

In some situations, when you turn a blind eye to a person in danger, you may need to cope with pangs of guilt -- and lawsuits, too.

Here's what everyone, especially Good Samaritans, need to know:

General Rule: No Duty to Rescue

In general, a person has no duty to rescue another person who is in danger, regardless of the ease of rescue and the consequences of non-rescue.

Although an arguably callous rule, the general rationale is that it would be insanely tough to predict what kind of action (or inaction) would trigger liability. Alas, a good law is one that is predictable.

To temper the rule's tendency to incentivize apathy, many states have enacted "Good Samaritan laws" that protect do-gooder rescuers from civil liability. For example, a recent New Jersey law extends this protection to Good Samaritans who call 911 to report a drug overdose.

In the vast majority of situations, you won't face civil liability for waltzing by a person in distress -- you'll only draw the ire of karma and the goodwill of your community.

Exceptions: You 'Started It' or You're 'Special'

But with every "general" legal rule comes exceptions. Although there is generally no duty to come to a person's rescue, there are some situations in which a person can be sued for not playing hero.

One such situation is where the rescuer's negligence created the need for the person to be rescued. If you had a hand in creating the perilous situation, then you're generally under a duty to rescue the person in danger.

Also, you have a duty to rescue a person when you have a special relationship with the victim, such as a parent-child or school-student relationship.

In addition, some states impose a duty to rescue crime victims or to report crimes, but only if you can do so "without danger or peril" to yourself or others, as a law professor writing for The Volokh Conspiracy has explained.

If a duty exists, and the rescuer failed to act, that can form the basis of a negligence lawsuit. A victim can try to prove negligence by showing a party breached a duty, which in turn caused the victim's injury.

For guidance as to whether rescuer liability applies to your specific situation, you may want to consult an experienced personal injury lawyer near you.

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