Amid the obvious horror of the recent Boston Marathon bombings are numerous uplifting and reassuring instances where runners’ and ordinary spectators’ immediate reactions were to move toward the locations of the explosions–to help tend to the critically wounded. In some cases, such action might have literally saved life or limb. Most followers of the events likely have asked themselves, “What would I have done?” From a legal perspective, are ordinary citizens legally obligated to help? And if they do try to assist the wounded, can they be sued if their assistance turns out to have caused harm to the wounded?
Only in rare instances are ordinary citizens legally obligated to assist an injured person or one in potential peril. Legal obligations to act traditionally have arisen from an existing special relationship, typically professional (e.g., physician-patient, social worker-client) or parent-child. Although there is some variation, most if not all states provide immunity to “Good Samaritans” who offer assistance to strangers in need unless the would-be hero engages in gross negligence in his or her assistance or gives assistance based on an expectation of being compensated, or some similar proviso. Two states—Minnesota and Vermont–however, have passed laws that arguably require assistance. However, those laws contain enough language to effectively absolve the person who does not try to help. For instance, the Vermont law imposes a duty only to provide “reasonable” assistance, and only if that assistance can be rendered “without danger or peril to himself or without interference with important duties owed to others,” and “unless that assistance or care is being provided by others.” Even so, a violation of that statute is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than $100. The broad caveats and low punishment likely reflects our society’s general reluctance to make heroism a legal obligation, and reinforces the correctness of our regarding those who do act, as true heroes. // Michael Racette