In law schools around the country it's common for first-year law students to learn about the “no duty to rescue” rule. This legal doctrine states that as an average person you are under no legal obligation to help someone in distress. Even if helping an imperiled person would impose little or no risk to yourself, you do not commit a crime if you choose not to render assistance. Not only that, but you cannot be sued if the person is injured or killed because of your choice not to act.
However, there are several exceptions to this rule. Some states have adopted “Good Samaritan” laws that impose criminal sanctions against people who do not offer assistance in some situations. While these laws differ significantly between states, they raise the possibility that you can commit a crime when you choose not to help a person in need.
While the law does not generally require a stranger to come to the assistance of an ordinary person, it does recognize a heightened responsibility when people have certain relationships.
Once such relationship exists between parents and children. Parents have a legal duty to protect their children and see that they do not come to harm. If a parent chooses not to act when the child needs help this is often a crime. Courts have, for example, held that a parent who is aware of another parent who beats or abuses their children has a duty to try to stop it. If a parent fails to do this he or she can be charged with a crime.
It can also be a crime to not to render assistance even if there is no special relationship between the person in danger and the bystander. These “Good Samaritan” laws impose a legal duty to act in some situations.
For example, the state of Vermont has a law that says that you must render assistance if you know that someone else is in grave danger of physical harm if no one else is doing so and if doing so does not place your in peril. Failing to do so is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $100. (Vermont Statutes Annotated Title 12, section 519(a).)
In other states, such as Rhode Island, your duty to act is not as high. The Rhode Island law says that if you witness a sexual attack you have a duty to call the police. If you knowingly fail to report such an assault, you commit a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and up to a year in jail. (Rhode Island General Laws sections 11-37-3.1 and 11-37-3.1)
Helping others doesn't always go as planned, and in your attempts to render assistance you can very easily cause more damage or make the situation worse. In such a situation, you could cause the person in need more harm, and that person might choose to sue you for the damages you cause.
Because of this many states have adopted laws that add protections whenever someone chooses to be a Good Samaritan or acts under the requirements of a Good Samaritan law. Such laws typically state, for example, that once you provide assistance as required by a Good Samaritan law, you are shielded from civil or criminal liability.
For example, let's say you live in a state that requires you to call the police if you witness a sexual assault. One night you were at home, looking out your window and you see a woman being assaulted across the street. You call the police, tell them what you saw, and identify the person you believe committed the crime. In this situation the law would prevent the sexual assault victim from suing you for damages on the grounds that you didn't try to stop the assault.
Some states have also adopted “911 Good Samaritan” laws that also shield people from criminal prosecution in some situations. These laws are primarily targeted at those who use illegal drugs and who might be hesitant to ask for assistance because of their illegal actions.
For example, if two people are using illegal drugs and one of them suddenly overdoses, the other might not want to call the police or dial 911 because he is afraid he could be arrested on drug charges. A 911 Good Samaritan law allows anyone who calls 911 or seeks medical assistance in such a situation to do so without risking criminal prosecution.
The 911 Good Samaritan drug overdose laws originated in 2007 when New Mexico became the first state to adopt the protections. Since then nine other states have adopted similar laws, and in 2012 California became the 10th to do so. In those states that do not have the 911 Good Samaritan protections, drug users may still face the criminal prosecution if they try to obtain help for someone who is overdosing.
Good Samaritans laws and the legal protections or duties they impose differ significantly among the states, and your exposure to possible charges will depend on where you live. Because of this you need to speak to a lawyer in your area if you are facing criminal charges, or think that you might be charged with a crime, or simply want qualified legal advice. Attorneys in your area will be knowledgeable about the laws that apply in your situation, and will be able to give you relevant advice based on their first-hand experience with the local courts, prosecuting attorneys, and police.