A duty to act is a legal duty that requires a party to take necessary action in order to prevent harm to another individual or to the general public. In personal injury laws, an individual can be held to a standard of reasonable care to prevent harm or injury.
In many situations, a duty to act is imposed under a statute or from a contractual relationship, for example:
- A doctor’s duty to care for patients;
- An owner’s duty to protect those who are invited upon their land;
- The duty of a restaurateur to provide proper fire escapes for patrons;
- A parent’s duty to act affirmatively to safeguard their child or children and safeguard third parties from their child or children.
Typically, unless there is a contract or a statute that creates a duty to act, there will not be one. A duty may arise, however, when an individual voluntarily assumes responsibility for another individual.
What Is an Omission to Act?
An individual may be held liable even if there was not an explicit duty to act. For example, if an individual was drowning in a pool and another individual attempted to rescue them, the act of attempting to assist would create a duty to act to complete the rescue.
In this case, if the assisting individual gave up on rescuing the victim, which left them in a worse situation, they may be found liable. A duty that may not otherwise exist may be self-imposed on an individual if they are the cause of a situation that results in the victim’s position of danger.
In other words, if an individual’s action causes a dangerous situation, they will have a duty to act or a duty to aid.
Is There a Duty to Rescue?
In general, there is no duty to rescue. An individual typically cannot be prosecuted for doing nothing when another individual is in peril.
In certain cases, however, if there is a special relationship between the parties, an individual may be found liable for failing to rescue someone who was in peril.
What Kind of Relationships Create a Duty to Rescue?
Examples of relationships that create a duty to rescue include;
- A carrier owes a duty to passengers to render assistance if they are in peril;
- A master or individual who is in charge of a ship to rescue its seamen who have fallen overboard;
- An employer to aid its employees injured in the course of their employment;
- An owner or occupier of premises to aid their invitees;
- A jailer to aid prisoners in their custody;
- A host to aid their guest;
- A school official to aid their students.
In some cases, the duty to rescue may arise from injury accidents.
What Is Required of the Duty to Rescue?
When a duty to rescue does arise, in general, the rescuer must act with reasonable care. Usually, this means that the rescuer does not increase the injury they seek to alleviate.
The rescuer will only be held liable for gross or wanton neglect. A rescuer is not required to endanger themselves when conducting a rescue.
The rescue doctrine may also allow the rescuer themselves to recover from their own injuries. However, it does not apply if the rescuer was acting based on a duty that arose from their own creation of the peril.
What Is a Good Samaritan Law?
Some states have Good Samaritan laws that may shield an individual from liability if they attempt to assist another individual who is in danger and in need of help. If the rescuer accidentally caused further injuries, the law may provide them protection from lawsuits if they acted reasonably given the facts of the situation.
One example of this would be if an individual collapses in the middle of the road and their rescuer acts quickly to remove them from traffic but accidentally breaks their arm in the process. As the rescuer saved them from being struck by a vehicle, the Good Samaritan law would likely prevent them from being held liable for breaking the individual’s arm.
It is important to note, however, that the majority of states allow victims to sue the good samaritan if they acted negligently. An example of this would be if the good samaritan dragged the collapsed individual directly into a burning building.
The law would likely not shield the rescuer from a lawsuit for the injuries that the injured individual sustained while they were in the burning building. This is because a reasonable individual would not drag an injured individual into a burning building.
When states passed Good Samaritan laws, they were attempting to encourage and protect innocent bystanders to assist other individuals in emergency situations when they are able to do so. An individual, however, may not qualify as a Good Samaritan if they are required to assist someone in an emergency situation that they created.
If an individual did not cause an emergency and it poses a great risk to their safety, the majority of states provide that an individual does not have to assist the injured party.
What Is Negligence?
Negligence is the legal theory that allows an injured party to recover legal damages for injuries or damage caused by the carelessness of other individuals. In order to show negligence, the plaintiff must prove all four of the following elements:
- Duty: A duty is the responsibility that one individual owes to another;
- In general, individuals who are going about their business owe each other a duty of reasonable care;
- Reasonable care refers to the amount of care that an ordinary and prudent individual would use in the same circumstances;
- Breach: Breach of duty occurs when an individual’s level of care falls below the level that is required by their duty;
- Causation: The breach of a duty caused the injury. The legal test for causation can be complex. However, the basic test is ‘but for’ one party’s actions, the injury would not have occurred; and
- Damages: There must have been a type of harm that occurred to the party who was not behaving negligently;
- The specific type of injury can vary, for example:
- Property damage;
- Emotional stress,
- Lost wages.
If one of the elements listed above cannot be proven, negligence cannot be established. Negligence is commonly asserted in personal injury claims.
What Are Personal Injury Accidents?
Personal injury accidents occur when an individual suffers some type of injury or harm resulting from another individual’s disregard or carelessness. Personal injury law claims are filed in civil court.
In certain types of cases, criminal actions may also be filed based on the same incident that caused the personal injury. Personal injury claims may be categorized as:
- Intentional torts;
- Strict liability.
Personal injuries may arise out of many different types of events. Common types of accidents that result in personal injury claims include the following:
Should I Contact an Attorney About the Duty to Rescue?
The duty to rescue and applicable Good Samaritan laws can be complex. If an individual has any issues, questions, or concerns related to these laws or has been sued, it is important to consult with a tort lawyer.
Your attorney can explain the laws in your state and inform you of your rights, as well as help you recover for your injuries or help protect you from liability. Whether you were the victim, the rescuer, or the original tortfeasor, it is important to have an attorney on your case.