When most people think of personal injury liability, they picture the at-fault party taking some kind of action that ends up harming someone else -- running a red light, for example. But what about liability for failing to act? For better or worse, the rule is that you don’t typically have to take action to prevent an injury to someone else, unless you had a special relationship with the person (in the eyes of the law), or put him or her in danger. Let's take a closer look at how these rules work.
No Broad Duty to Help
There is generally no blanket legal duty placed on one citizen to help another; no "duty to rescue" in other words. If, for example, you are walking past a pond, and you see a complete stranger flailing around in the water, you have no legal obligation to help that person. Even if you are a certified lifeguard, the law doesn’t require you to jump in the pond and help that person to safety. You may have an ethical, moral, or religious duty to help, but you don’t have a legal duty to help.
If, however, you pushed the person into the pond in the first place or otherwise caused the person to be in danger, then you may very well have the legal duty to take reasonable steps to help that person. (Learn more about Negligence and the "Reasonable Person" Standard.)
You should also be aware that most states require certain action on the part of drivers who have been involved in a car accident. States typically require drivers to notify law enforcement and/or get medical assistance for anyone who has been injured in the crash. (Learn more about What to Do After a Car Accident.)
A "Special Relationship" Can Trigger a Duty to Help
Let’s now take a look at the different "special relationships" that could require you to act if you see someone in danger. These include:
- parent-child (this may extend to babysitters, nannies and other caregivers)
- common carrier (i.e., trains, planes, buses, etc.)-passenger
- social host-guest, and
The nature of these special relationship means that, in the eyes of the law, the person or entity in the dominant/authoritative position has the legal duty to help or rescue the person in his/her/its care. Let's look at a few examples.
A husband walks outside his house and sees that his wife has fallen off a ladder. The husband has the legal duty to provide assistance to his wife because of the existence of the spousal relationship. He cannot simply walk past her and leave her lying there. (Note: The husband could walk past his sister-in-law if she fell off the ladder. His marriage might not last, but the law would not require him to help in that situation.)
A teacher has the legal duty to help a student. If, for example, the student is choking, the teacher is required to take whatever action is reasonably necessary. If the teacher knows the Heimlich maneuver, the teacher must employ it. If not, the teacher must get help for the student immediately.
The common carrier relationship is probably one of the better known "special relationships". "Common carrier" is an old legal term for a company that transports people (or goods) for profit. These include buses, trains, planes, taxis, subways, boats, and sometimes even amusement parks (because they operate rides). So, for example, a bus driver has the legal obligation to take reasonable steps to help a passenger who is in danger of injury. But the driver would not have the same obligation to help someone who she observes slip and fall on the sidewalk.
Finally, some states distinguish between invitees and trespassers on private property. In some states, the property owner has a legal duty to rescue invitees -- in other words, people who were invited onto the property, like guests -- from reasonably foreseeable dangers on the property. But that same property owner does not have the duty to rescue trespassers from those dangers. A reasonably foreseeable danger is one that the property owner 1) knows or should know about, and 2) has the reasonable potential to injure someone. An example might be an open pit on the property. An open pit may or may not be a reasonably foreseeable danger during the day (because anyone could likely see it and avoid it), but it would be a reasonably foreseeable danger at night. Learn more about "Foreseeability" in Personal Injury Cases.