If you see someone in need assistance and try to help, what happens if you end up hurting that person as you do so? While the answer to this question will differ significantly depending on the state in which you live, it’s possible that you could get sued for your actions. As a general principle of law—even though there are some significant exceptions—you have no obligation to be a Good Samaritan and assist strangers in need of help. If you choose to help and the person you help suffers damages, you could face a lawsuit.
A Good Samaritan is a person who offers assistance to a stranger without a motivation for a reward and without being forced or compelled to. It's possible that the person offering aid could face either criminal or civil penalties if injury results. To understand how this can be so, it’s important to first understand the difference between civil and criminal liability.
All states have their own criminal laws. These laws determine what kinds of actions constitute crimes. If you engage in criminally prohibited acts a state prosecutor can charge you with a crime and, if you are convicted, a court will issue a criminal sentence. A criminal sentence involves the possibility of fines, incarceration, probation, and other penalties. Violating the criminal law always involves a criminal "state of mind," or an intent to violate the law.
Civil law, on the other hand, does not involve state prosecutors or criminal charges. In civil law you can sue, and be sued, by private individuals, corporations, organizations, or even the government. If you lose a civil case you may have to pay monetary damages, hand over property, or face other legal orders, but civil law does not carry the possibility of jail or prison time.
If you do something that harms someone else, exposes a person to danger, or violates some kind of agreement you have, this is known as exposing yourself civil to liability. This is just a fancy way of saying you have done something that allows someone else to sue you for damages. In the situation where a Good Samaritan chooses to help someone else, civil liability can arise if, during the course of providing assistance, the person in need of help is injured or suffers harm.
Good Samaritans who inadvertently injure the victim rarely, if ever, face criminal charges, because they lack the intent to do wrong. However, failing to help when you could have done so safely may trigger a charge, as explained below.
As a general principle of law you don’t have to help out a perfect stranger, even if doing so does not expose you to danger. However, some states have adopted Good Samaritan laws that require you to act if it is safe to do so. Failing to help in such a situation could result in being charged with a crime as well as exposing you to civil liability.
Aside from any Good Samaritan laws that impose a duty to help, you may also have a duty to act if you have a special relationship with the person in need of help. For example, parents, child caregivers and teachers have a duty to act when a child is in danger. Similarly, jailers have a responsibility towards the prisoners they guard and ship captains have a responsibility to their passengers. If a special relationship exists and a person fails to act to protect another from harm, the injured person can sue.
Another way you can expose yourself to civil liability to a stranger is if you act negligently and your actions expose someone else to harm. In such a situation, you have a duty to take reasonable steps to try to prevent further harm befalling that person even if he or she is a perfect stranger to you.
Additionally, you may have a legal duty to help a stranger if you voluntarily choose to act when there is no initial legal duty to do so. If, for example, you help a driver get out of a burning car after you witness an accident, you have a duty to ensure the driver’s reasonable safety. You cannot simply drag the driver from the car and leave him in the middle of a busy highway, but must take reasonable steps to make sure no unnecessary harm comes to him.
When you act as a Good Samaritan, your state’s law may protect you from civil lawsuits. While all states have adopted some type of Good Samaritan law, those laws differ significantly in the protections they afford to people who choose to act when they have no legal duty to do so.
Some states, for example, have enacted laws that say that anyone who provides emergency assistance or care to someone else is shielded from civil liability as long as he or she acts in a reasonable manner. Other states provide broader protections, such as by affording doctors or physicians who come to someone’s aid protection from even negligent actions they take in the course of offering assistance. Still others have laws that give liability protection only to doctors, medical personnel or first responders and not average bystanders who choose to act.
The laws and legal theories that apply to Good Samaritan situations differ significantly from state to state. In some situations, for example, being a Good Samaritan in one state could expose you to being charged with a crime, while taking the exact action in another state could mean that you are shielded from prosecution and civil liability. Any time you have a legal concern or think you could be sued or charged with a crime it’s vital that you seek legal advice from an attorney in your area. If you act on information you find on the Internet, rumors you hear from friends, or from any source that isn’t an experienced in-state attorney, you run the risk of relying on very bad advice. Only lawyers who know your state laws and court decisions and who have experience with local courts will be able to give you legal advice and assist you with your case.