No duty to act, but law protects Samaritans

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Dear John,

Recently, I was in Las Vegas for a few days of vacation. As I was walking down the strip, I saw a crowd gathering at the entrance to one of the casinos. Thinking this was just a marketing gimmick, I started to make my way passed the crowd.

It was then that I noticed that the crowd was gathering around someone who had collapsed. No one was helping her. Everyone was just standing around.

Fortunately, the casino responded quickly with its staff and Vegas paramedics arrived soon after.

My question is, don’t we have a responsibility to help people? Aren’t there criminal charges that could be filed for standing around and watching someone die without trying to help?

I know that if I were in trouble, I wouldn’t want a crowd of people watching me suffer without lifting a finger to help me.

Sincerely,

Vegas Victim Viewer


Dear Vegas,

There have been many studies about the behavior of people in crowds. It appears the reaction you witnessed is not unusual; people tend to stand around and hope at someone else will intervene. I am glad the casino took action.

A person, generally, does not have a duty to act when someone is in distress. This means that you can watch someone die without lifting a finger. However, you cannot hinder that person’s ability to save him or herself. This means that if you see a person crawling to a phone to summon help, you cannot move the phone away from the person.

There are some exceptions to the rule of no duty to act. Some people, such as police, doctors, firefighters and paramedics, must act as part of their status. This includes when they are away from work.

Additionally, if you have a special relationship with the victim, such as your child, you may be required to act. This means that if your child and a friend are drowning, you have a duty to try to save your child (no matter how dirty he keeps his room) but you may not have to save the other child.

If you decide to render assistance to a person in distress, the law generally exempts you from liability. This is called a “Good Samaritan” statute. One caveat is that the assistance you render was reasonable and not grossly negligent.

For example, you cannot try to revive someone’s heart by putting them in the bathtub with a toaster. You can call 911 and summon help and perform tasks you are trained to do. Sometimes you can even perform tasks you are not trained to do, so long as it would be reasonable to do so.

Should you choose to render aid, you should never put yourself in harm’s way to do so. One victim is bad, two is worse. Do not follow anyone off a waterfall or into a pit full of venomous snakes.

It is easy to provide examples of calamity that one might find humorous. However, tragedy, such as you witnessed in Las Vegas, is never something to be taken lightly. You never know when you will be confronted with a threat to human life. The best way to prevent misfortune is through preparedness.

Taking a class in first aid and CPR is a great way to prepare. Knowing the physical condition of yourself and others is also important. Allergies, medications, disabilities and the like are important pieces of information to share with those around you. Communication and development of a plan before you need one is also a good idea.

I hope you never have to experience a crowd milling about watching you die. I also hope that we all do our part to make sure this does not happen again.

Sincerely,

John

John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only. Have a question? Ask John at askjohn@wwub.com.

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