The Good Samaritan Law | Is it safe to stop and render aid?

By K. Susie Adams #134068

Years ago, I was in the bathroom at a local cinema washing my hands. Next to me, a young girl popped a peppermint in her mouth and immediately began to cough. Convinced she was choking on the mint, I raced over and began to perform my version of the Heimlich Maneuver to help dislodge the mint. However, my only training in this technique had been 20 years earlier, so I really didn’t know what I was doing.

She began to flail her arms at me while still coughing and yelled, “Mom, stop! I’m not choking, I’m coughing.”

Fortunately, the victim happened to be my daughter. We still laugh about the incident when I thought she was choking and tried to save her, which luckily didn’t result in broken ribs or other physical damage.

Good Samaritan Laws
Recently, when I was asked to write about the current status of the Good Samaritan laws, I remembered this event. These laws, like so many other practices that have been structured into law, try to describe precisely the fine line between protecting those who are genuinely trying to help others, and goofballs (like me) who panic and begin to do half-baked rescue operations that may bring more harm than good to the potential victims. Fortunately, the Good Samaritan Laws even protect the goofballs.

Before 1959, an individual who voluntarily rendered aid could incur liability for any physical harm that resulted from the rescuer’s “failure to exercise reasonable care” or their “negligence.” Finding that this practice discouraged bystanders (especially those in the health professions) from rendering aid, California became the first state to pass “Good Samaritan” legislation, in 1959. Named after the Biblical passerby who stopped to render assistance when others “went on their cheerful way rejoicing” (Luke 10:30-37), every state today has such a law on the books.

Protection from Liability
Generally, Good Samaritan Laws “seek to shield altruistic rescuers from possible liability for any negligent acts or omissions arising out of their rescue attempts.”[1] Although not all Good Samaritan laws offer the same protection, each state has its own protected classes of people who are safe from liability as well. In Texas, for example, even in a hospital, physicians are protected when assisting in an emergency if they have volunteered to help and don’t actually work in an area of the hospital where the emergency takes place.

However, the laws in most states do not protect you against “willful and wanton misconduct” or “gross negligence,” except Ohio, where you are even protected if you are grossly negligent in rendering aid, but not if you are “wanton and reckless.” Florida, for some reason, has written their law so that Good Samaritans are required to act “as an ordinarily reasonable prudent person would act in the same or similar circumstance.” 

This suggests that, if someone does not render aid in such a manner, they can be liable. Sadly, this suggests the standard applicable in 1959, when folks were discouraged from rendering aid because they could be sued for negligence if there were problems.

Defining an Emergency
Who is protected? Most of us non-health-care folks are protected if we render aid and it is truly an emergency. In most states, emergency is defined as “life threatening.” If, for example, you notice a baby in a parked car on a hot day with all the windows closed and the motor off and you decide to break the window with a crowbar to save it, you will most likely be immune from any kind of prosecution. However, if you panic, and don’t notice the car is running and that there’s someone inside watching the baby, then you might be found liable for damaging the window in a non-emergency.

Medically Trained Professionals
The laws also protect medical professionals, as well as others trained in first aid, if they voluntarily assist victims at the scene of an emergency. Physicians and nurses generally owe no duty to strangers. So, even if a physician is trained in the area needed to save a victim, he or she has no duty to render care simply because he or she happens to be at the scene of an emergency. If the physician chooses to render aid voluntarily, and he or she fails to act with reasonable care under the circumstances, the physician will still be protected from liability from any frivolous lawsuits.

On the other hand, those same professionals can be found negligent in a health-care facility where they are employed to care for such victims. The victim does not have to prove “gross negligence” to win such a lawsuit, if the person rendering aid is a professional who is paid to render such aid and the aid is rendered in the health care setting.

There are also those who owe a pre-existing duty to emergency victims simply by their training. Police officers, for example, have a duty to act in emergencies. Fire fighters are also “paid to act.” If, in the line of duty, they act negligently or “by failing to act with reasonable care,” they may be found to be liable for resulting injuries. However, if they are off duty, happen upon an emergency situation and choose to help, they will be protected even if their acts are found to be negligent.

The Responsibility of RVers
I remember when my husband and I took our Casita travel trailer on a trip to Montana. Three times in one day we drove along the same winding road toward Yellowstone. The first time, we noticed a large, older American car in the ditch on the side of the road, trailer attached, flipped over. We both assumed it must have been there for a while. Hours later, when we drove back by and it was still there, it never crossed our minds to stop and check to see if anyone was inside. The third time we drove by, a policeman had stopped behind the vehicle and was walking toward the front of the car. I do not know to this day if there were people in the car. I do know that we should have stopped hours earlier when we first passed, to make sure no one was injured, rather than “going our cheerful way rejoicing.”

In so many ways, full-time RVers are the eyes and ears of the highways and back roads. You may find yourself at the scene of an emergency and you may even be the first person on the scene.

The laws across this country (with the odd exception of Florida) are written to protect you if you find yourself in such a situation. You can stop, attempt to render aid and do what ever you can to help. The laws encourage this response. And, of course, with cell phones you can at least stop and find out the situation and then call for help if needed.

 K. Susie Adams has been a lawyer for over 30 years, spending 15 of those years working as a trial lawyer. She also taught legal writing at the University of Houston Law School. From 2011–2016, she was executive director of Childrenz Haven, the Child Advocacy Center of Polk County, Texas. Susie and her husband, James Frost, reside in Livingston, Texas.

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