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When The Good Samaritan is The Despised Samaritan

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
If you can help, then help. But consider the consequences.

What if you stop and help someone in trouble, simply trying to be a Good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:30-36). Could you be held liable for any injuries that the person you are trying to help might receive in the course of your assistance?  The answer—as unsatisfying as it may be—is, it depends.

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At first, it might seem odd that you could be held financially responsible to another person when all you are trying to do is help them. While you may have a moral duty to help or rescue another, legally, you have no duty to rescue another person. The rationale is simple, you should not be legally required to rescue a drowning person if you cannot swim. You will likely cause more harm than good. If you choose, however, to give such assistance, you may have unwittingly assumed a legal duty.

The common law rule is that “one who undertakes to act, even though gratuitously, is required to act carefully and with the exercise of due care and will be liable for injuries proximately caused by failure to use such care.” Creasy v. United States,645 F. Supp. 853, 855 (W.D. Va. 1986) (quoting Neal v. Bergland, 646 F.2d 1178, 1181-82 (1981)). A good Samaritan is only liable to the extent that he or she fails to use due care. This is called negligence. It can be broken down into four elements: (1) duty to exercise reasonable care, (2) breach of that duty, (3) that breach proximately caused (4) damages. This is not a mechanical calculation, though, and whether the good Samaritan acted like a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances is a very difficult question to resolve.

If you are a good Samaritan, do not fear. Even though the Virginia law on the common law Good Samaritan Rule is scarce, the General Assembly has enacted a statute that presupposes that the Rule applies in Virginia. This also seems apparent from Code § 1-200.

Nonetheless, Virginia has adopted what is commonly referred to as the Good Samaritan Statute to encourage Virginians to help each other. Code § 8.01-225. There, the Virginia General Assembly created a long list of immunities against liability under the Good Samaritan Rule.

For example if you, in good faith, give “emergency medical care or assistance, without compensation, to any ill or injured person (i) at the scene of an accident, fire, or any life-threatening emergency; (ii) at a location for screening or stabilization of an emergency medical condition arising from an accident, fire, or any life-threatening emergency; or (iii) en route to any hospital, medical clinic, or doctor’s office,” you will qualify for one circumstance exempting you from civil damages for injuries resulting from your assistance.

This particular immunity is just one of many listed here. Review this list and keep in mind those situations that you might encounter in life.

To be sure that I am not misunderstood, none of this is to say that you should refrain from rendering assistance, being a good Samaritan and giving help to those in need. Indeed, the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 ends with Jesus’ instruction to “go and do the same.” However, this is to say that you should assume such duty with open eyes and you should exercise due care in helping others. I’d say that there is no better way to “love you neighbor as yourself” than to give help and exercise reasonable care. That is truly a good Samaritan.

If you only undertake to help, without good faith and without exercising reasonable care, then you will be despised and liable for any injuries your negligence may cause.

Posted by Brandon S. Osterbind, Esq.