Can I Sue Someone for Not Calling 911?
Yes, in some situations you may be able to sue someone in civil court for failing to call 911. Although you owe no legal obligation to a stranger to give them help when they are in peril, there are situations when you assume the duty, a statute (law) imposes the duty, or you have a special relationship with that person that creates that duty, such as for a family member.
If you do help someone in need, most states have Good Samaritan laws that protect you from civil cases if something goes wrong. In other words, the law doesn't force you to help someone, but if you do, you should be protected from liability. For example, if someone at the table next to you is choking, you do not have to help. If you do and break the ribs of the person choking when doing the Heimlich Maneuver, you won't be on the hook for their medical bills.
Failing to Help
If you are injured and believe someone should have called for medical assistance but didn't, there are limited circumstances in which you may be able to bring a personal injury case against them. To better understand your rights, you may want to seek legal advice from a skilled personal injury lawyer.
Must Spider-Man at Least Call the Police?
Imagine you are Peter Parker, a mild-mannered, largely unnoticed high school student. On a field trip to a science facility, you are bitten by a radioactive spider. Surprise! You now have superpowers and have become the Amazing Spider-Man.
Aunt May sends you to a nearby convenience store to pick up some milk. While there, a robber comes in, points a gun at the cashier, and demands the money in the cash register. You could easily take down the robber but decide not to run the risk of disclosing your secret identity.
The robber takes plenty of time. Your cell phone is handy, and the police station is just down the street. You could call 911 but choose not to, thinking it's best not to get involved. After getting the cash, the robber runs out of the store. Before he leaves, he pistol-whips the cashier across the face, cutting their cheek and giving them a bloody nose.
The cashier staunches the blood as they call the police. A police officer comes, takes statements from you and the cashier, prepares a police report, and leaves.
You still need to bring home milk, so you go to the store refrigerator, pull out a gallon, and walk up to the register. The cashier is fuming mad.
“Why didn't you call the police? I know who you are, Peter Parker — I'm going to sue you for not calling 911!"
Does the cashier have a civil lawsuit? Should Spider-Man be worried?
If you want to sue someone, you need to have a claim against them. Here the claim would be for what's called the tort of negligence.
Negligence is conduct that falls below the standard established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm. Although phrased in different ways, a negligence claim generally requires you to prove four elements:
- A duty of care
- Breach of that duty
If you owe someone a duty of care, you need to act toward them as would a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances. Failing that, you are responsible for legally recognizable damages that were foreseeable and directly caused by the failure. That's negligence in a nutshell.
What Is a Legal Duty?
The central question here is whether Spider-Man owed the cashier a legal duty and, if so, whether that duty required him to call 911. In other words, did he have to do something and, if so, what did he have to do?
A duty to do something arises when the law recognizes a relationship between two parties that requires them to act in a certain manner. This rather unhelpful definition boils down to this: You owe a legal duty when the law says you do.
The Duty Factors That Judges Consider
A judge decides in any given situation whether a duty of care exists. Judges decide this based on the circumstances and what any similar past cases say about it.
Although they vary from state to state, courts often consider a number of factors, including:
- The foreseeability of the harm to the injured person
- The degree of certainty that they suffered the injury
- The closeness of the connection between your conduct and their injury
- The moral blame attached to your conduct
- The policy of deterring future similar harm
- The burden on you of bearing the duty
- The benefit to the community of recognizing a duty to act in a particular situation
A good personal injury lawyer can help you determine whether your state recognizes a legal duty in your particular situation.
An Example of a Legal Duty
Let's put Spider-Man aside for a moment. Suppose you are out for a run, minding your own business, heading through a crosswalk. A stranger on a bicycle runs the stop sign and collides with you. You have to go to the ER for stitches, and you will be limping for a good week.
As case law establishes, bicyclists owe a duty of care to pedestrians in crosswalks. That's not controversial and it makes sense. It doesn't matter that the bicyclist has no idea who you are. Running a stop sign and plowing into a pedestrian is, among other things, foreseeable, blameworthy, and something the community benefits from deterring. So a judge would find that the bicyclist owed you a legal duty.
Standard of Care
Now, on to part two. What did that duty require the bicyclist to do? That's called the standard of care. Centuries of case law say that the duty owed is to act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances. What's reasonable depends on the situation. That's up to the jury, not the judge, to decide.
Back to our bicyclist. They owed you a duty. That duty required them to act as a reasonably prudent bicyclist approaching a stop sign with a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Most people would agree that running a stop sign and colliding with a runner in a crosswalk isn't reasonably prudent behavior, so there's a strong chance a jury would say that the bicyclist breached their duty of care to you.
Those are the first elements of a negligence claim. With that as background, let's now turn to whether you have to call 911 in an emergency.
General Rule: No Duty To Aid Someone in Peril
In general, the law says you do not owe a duty to help someone else. There is no duty to rescue. You are under no legal obligation to do anything to help people in an emergency situation.
That may seem harsh, even cruel. Don't we want to encourage people to help others? But that's not the law. You could be Michael Phelps swimming in a lake, see a ten-year-old struggling to keep their head over water, and just swim by without the law finding you liable if the kid drowns. You won't make many friends acting that way, but the law won't condemn you.
Since you don't owe a duty to help others, the law does not require you to act toward them in a certain way. If there's no duty, you don't even get to the second part of the question. Hence, no duty to call 911.
So in general, Spider-Man, you're off the hook.
Exceptions to the General Rule
There are exceptions, which may make the application of the general rule seem less immoral. They fall into three categories:
- The actor assumes a duty to act with care toward another
- A statute imposes a duty to act with care toward another
- An actor in a special relationship with someone else owes them a duty of care
Assumption of a Duty
The first exception is the assumption of a duty. Sometimes a person can volunteer to assume a legal duty. For example, if a doctor shows up at an auto accident and decides to help someone, they assume a duty to that person. That duty would require them to act as a reasonably prudent doctor treating an average person involved in a similar car accident with similar injuries.
If Spider-Man did decide to call 911, then he would assume the duty to act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances. It's up to the jury to decide what that requires.
What might that require? Well, Spider-Man may have to provide relatively accurate information to the dispatcher, such as the address and the information that the robber is armed. He might also have to wait on the scene until law enforcement arrives. Again, what's reasonable is for the jury to decide.
Statute Imposes a Duty
A second exception is when there is a particular statute in place that imposes a duty to act. If there is such a statute, you once again must act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances.
Some states have a law requiring you to lend aid if you cause a car crash. That would require calling 911. If you failed to do so, you could be held civilly liable, or perhaps criminally liable, depending on where you are. Other states have laws requiring you to call 911 if you witness a dangerous crime, like murder or rape, and can do so without putting yourself in danger.
Trust a good lawyer to know if you owe someone a statutory duty of care. Forming an attorney-client relationship with a law firm gives you the opportunity to ask questions and get solid legal advice about personal injury law.
The third exception to the general rule is where you stand in a special relationship with the injured party. This often occurs in the context of a preexisting relationship.
For example, parents owe a duty of care to their children. Hotels owe a duty of care to their guests. Employers owe a duty of care to their employees. A hired lifeguard owes a duty to the swimmers they supervise.
So if Spider-Man were your parent or your boss, he might be under a legal duty to you that would include calling 911. But a volunteer, off-the-clock superhero is not in a special relationship with a convenience store cashier.
Spider-Man is beginning to seem like a real jerk, isn't he? But not so fast!
Good Samaritan Laws: An Exception to the Assumed Duty Exception
Suppose, Spider-Man, you have a change of heart and decide you want to try to help after all. You rush over to the cashier with a Kleenex in good faith and try to help with the nosebleed, but you forget about your super-strength. You manage to break the cashier's nose. Insult to injury, as it were.
By offering aid, you assumed a duty to act with reasonable care. Even though you screwed up, don't worry. In most states, you could only be sued if you acted intentionally or with gross negligence. The statutes that grant this immunity are called “Good Samaritan" laws.
The primary purpose of Good Samaritan laws is to encourage people, such as people who have the knowledge to help in a medical emergency like doctors, to do so without having to worry about making things worse. States have decided that as a society, we benefit from protecting folks who try to help others from being sued. So if a doctor stopped to help injured victims of a car accident, they may be able to avoid malpractice liability if something goes wrong.
Some states go so far as to provide immunity from criminal liability for certain crimes, such as misdemeanors, if you call 911. An example of Good Samaritan law in some states that would help you avoid a criminal case is that if you are drinking underage and someone with you ODs, you won't be charged if you call 911.
If You Want To Know More, Consult a Personal Injury Attorney
The general rule is that you can't sue someone for failing to call 911, as wrong as that may seem. There are exceptions to that rule that may be worth considering.
A good personal injury attorney would be able to better inform you of your legal rights if you try to help someone in need and find yourself on the receiving end of a summons and complaint. Many will offer a free consultation before committing to filing a legal action.