Duty to Rescue

Research proposal posted by Valentina Reyes.

Tort law carries the “no duty to rescue” principle, which establishes an individual’s freedom to choose whether to intervene in situations of peril while imposing no sanction on those who choose not to act. “While there is properly in law a duty not to harm, there is not . . . a negative duty not to allow harm to happen” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes). So long as there is no fiduciary relationship – which is defined as a relationship of trust or legal obligation of a person to another – between the two parties, an individual is not obliged to intervene, even if refraining from doing so may lead to the impending death of the other. This principle was established with the idea that people should not be held responsible for the demise of others unless they were directly involved with the causation of the incidents that led to the other’s peril, or had some established duty of care to the other, and to protect one’s freedom of choice.

In some instances, some courts may find that if a person began to rescue another and then ceased, the rescuer may be found liable if the reasonable person would have continued to rescue the victim. Under the umbrella of negligence, this is called “undertaking to act.” However, some states provide immunity from liability under specific statutes typically referred to as “Good Samaritan laws.” These statutes are put in place to protect those who, in good faith, decide to help in an emergency situation from being sued in civil court for any damage which may result from their act or omission to act. Depending on the situation, courts may wish to protect a rescuer or deem them responsible for negligent acts if the additional damage caused to the plaintiff resulted from an unreasonable act by the rescuer.

While the “no duty to rescue” principle was put in place to protect people’s liberty to choose, it also gives people power to allow others to perish. On the one hand, people are free to choose whether to get involved, but if they choose not to help when they are capable of helping and when the help may save a life, then they have the indirect power over another’s life. The principle also reinforces individualistic behavior that is already very much present in American society and culture which is often noted as being extremely averse to collectivism. Further, if a person intends another to perish by doing nothing, they may be able to get away with being the indirect cause of the other’s demise by choosing to do nothing out of a desire to cause the other harm. In this case, we have the element of mens rea without actus reus (so long as the bystander was not involved in the proximate cause of the victim’s accident or ailment), and the person intending to do harm by doing nothing could be protected under the law. In the case that the defendant was involved in the proximate cause of the victim’s accident, as was the case in Podias v. Mairs, the defendant could be found guilty for doing nothing because at that point, a fiduciary relationship is formed because but for the defendant’s actions, the victim would not have been put in danger.

Catholic social teaching teaches us that we should love everyone and show a sense of community towards our neighbors. We should treat everyone how we would like to be treated and respect and protect all forms of life. Whether we are free to choose, we should do the correct thing and provide help when we can for those who need it because if we are the difference between life and death for another, it does not take much away from us to give another what they can never get back. Gaudium et Spes states “[…] the duty which is imposed upon us, that we build a better world based upon truth and justice. Thus, we are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by this responsibility to his brothers and to    history.”


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