Good Samaritan and Bystander Laws

Understand why we have Good Samaritan laws and what they do.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 12/05/2023

For the most part, American law does not impose a duty on the average bystander to aid or rescue another person in distress. However, to encourage a person to help someone in need, most states have enacted laws to protect Good Samaritans should they assist another. Many states also impose a duty to assist when a special relationship exists, the victim is a child, or the person causes the dangerous situation. Below, we review these three types of Good Samaritan laws.

What Are Good Samaritan Laws?

Good Samaritan laws seek to encourage individuals to assist others in an emergency. They do so in one of three ways:

  • by protecting Good Samaritans who render aid from civil liability
  • by protecting Good Samaritans who render aid from criminal liability, and
  • by imposing a duty to aid—or be a Good Samaritan—in certain situations.

Most states have some form of all three.

What Protections Do Good Samaritan Laws Provide?

The most common protections provided by Good Samaritan laws involve shielding people from being hauled into court or jail.

Civil Immunity for Good Samaritans

Most states have Good Samaritan laws that shield individuals from civil liability (being sued) when they aid someone in distress and something goes wrong. For instance, if someone performs CPR on an individual and accidentally injures them, the law will protect a Good Samaritan who acted reasonably and in good faith. Most laws state that a Good Samaritan won't be liable should the injured person try to sue. (Acts of gross negligence or willful misconduct are not protected.)

Here's an example of how a state "Good Samaritan" law might read:

"Any person who renders emergency care at the scene of any emergency or accident in good faith shall be immune from civil liability for their acts or omissions in rendering such emergency care."

Criminal Immunity for Good Samaritans (Overdose Prevention Laws)

Many states have also adopted "911 Good Samaritan" laws that shield people from criminal prosecution when they seek medical help for an overdose. These laws are primarily targeted at situations involving underage drinking and the use of illegal drugs, where an individual might not seek help for fear of being arrested or charged with a crime.

These laws vary in their specific protections and what is required to get those protections. Generally speaking, many 911 Good Samaritan laws apply as long as the person:

  • reasonably believes someone is experiencing an overdose or medical emergency
  • calls 911 or seeks emergency assistance
  • stays with the overdose victim until help arrives, and
  • cooperates with the authorities.

The legal protections often shield the 911 caller and overdose victim from being arrested or charged with drug possession or use, drug paraphernalia possession, or an underage drinking violation. Some state laws provide an affirmative defense to the charges.

Other names for these legal protections include "medical amnesty laws," "overdose immunity laws," "911 lifeline legislation," and "911 immunity laws."

What Duties Do Good Samaritan Laws Impose?

The third type of Good Samaritan law imposes a duty to assist others. States may impose a duty to assist when the victim is a child, the person caused the hazard, or a crime is in progress. Failure to help in these situations can result in criminal charges, often misdemeanor penalties. These laws are exceptions to the general "no duty to assist" rule.

Protection of Children: Duty to Report or Assist

Many states have laws requiring professionals and caretakers to report or stop possible harm being suffered by a child.

Parent and child. Parents or legal guardians generally have a legal duty to protect their children from continuing harm or abuse. If a parent chooses not to act when the child needs help, the law may consider this criminal child neglect or endangerment. For example, Minnesota makes it a gross misdemeanor for a parent to knowingly permit the continuing physical or sexual abuse of a child.

Mandatory reporters. Most, if not all, states have mandatory reporter laws that require certain professionals to report suspected child abuse. Failure to do so can result in criminal penalties or subject a reporter to civil liability. Mandatory reporters often include medical providers, social workers, childcare workers, teachers, therapists, and law enforcement.

Duty to Stop and Render Aid After Vehicle Collision

States also require those involved in vehicle collisions to stop and render aid. These laws stem from a duty to assist when a driver's actions (accidental or otherwise) cause harm to another person or their property. Failure to stop and assist can mean criminal penalties. Penalties often start as misdemeanors, but if a victim dies or suffers serious bodily harm, the driver who doesn't stop can face serious felony charges.

States With Duty-to-Assist Laws for Bystanders

Several states impose a legal duty to assist others in emergencies or to report certain crimes.

General duty to assist. For instance, Vermont law requires a person to give reasonable assistance to a person exposed to grave physical harm unless others are already providing help. The law states this duty applies only to the extent it can be done without harming oneself. A person who fails to provide assistance can be fined. States with similar laws include Minnesota and Rhode Island.

Duty to report crimes in progress. California and a few other states require bystanders to call 911 or notify police if they believe a crime is being committed. Certain states impose this duty for any crime, while others only impose penalties for not reporting certain crimes, such as violent crimes, sex crimes, or felonies. States with these laws include Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

(Cal. Penal Code § 152.3; Fla. Stat. § 794.027; Haw. Stat. § 663-1.6; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 268, § 40; Minn. Stat. § 604A.01; Ohio Rev. Code § 2921.22; R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-56-1; Vt. Stat. tit. 12, § 519; Wis. Stat. § 940.34 (2023).)

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