Am I Legally Obligated to Help Someone Who is in Danger – Part 2

In a previous article, we discussed the ‘duty to rescue’ concept in Queensland and other parts of the world. To recap, we explained that in Queensland and every other state in Australia except for the Northern Territory, there is no duty to rescue another person who is in danger. This duty is referred to by many different names but ‘bystander duty’ and ‘duty to rescue’ are the most common ones.

Therefore, whilst this is an extreme example, it perfectly illustrates this concept. If a child is drowning in a pool and there are a number of people standing around, there is no legal requirement for any of those people to save that child. This is no doubt morally very wrong, but looking at it strictly from a legal perspective, none of those people would be committing a criminal offence.

There are of course exceptions – if, for example, you failed to help if you were the person who caused the dangerous situation or injury, if the situation occurred on your property or if you were in a special type of relationship which meant that you were obliged to help (for example, a parent of the child, doctor, teacher etc.). This concept is not universal and the laws are different from country to country. For example, in most European countries the position is reverse to that in Australia and failing to help someone can, indeed, mean committing criminal offences.

Why do some countries not have a duty to rescue?

It might surprise some of you to learn that in Australia there is no obligation to help a person in danger. So why is this the case? The starting point is to recognise that if another person were in danger, ordinarily it would be a very manic and uncontrolled situation. People may be in a panic and will be saying and doing things that they won’t have had the proper time to consider and assess before they do it. 

For example, if there is a serious motor vehicle accident that involves a car being turned on its roof and on fire. In that situation, if someone wanted to help they would need to act very fast and without thought if they wanted to extract the victim from the wreckage.

Fear of civil liability

Imagine risking your life to save someone else – only for them to turn around and sue you. This was what happened when one American woman, Lisa Torti, pulled her one-time friend from a car after it crashed into a lamp-post. Torti said she believed the car was going to burst into flames when she saw smoke rising from the wreck. Unfortunately, due to her being “yanked” from the car, Alexandra Van Horn, the occupant of the car, became a paraplegic and she sued Torti for her injuries.

Legislation at the time only provided limited protection to people who helped others in danger and the California Supreme Court ruled that Van Horn was allowed to sue Torti for allegedly causing the paralysis. The court found that legislation only protected emergency workers – not others who took rescue action. Torti was understandably devastated.

The incident raises the question: do we want legislation that encourages people to help in an emergency, or to hesitate and wonder about whether they could get sued? In countries where people have a duty to rescue there will ordinarily be some sort of legal protection for them covering their actions, provided they, for example, acted reasonably and were not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

The ‘Bystander effect’

Another potential problem with implementing duty to rescue laws is something known as the ‘bystander effect’ – a psychological phenomenon whereby if there are multiple people at the scene of a crisis, everyone assumes someone else will be the one to step in to help.

In a group, there’s so much noise happening about ‘should I do something or is someone else going to do something? That sort of fear of acting and the hope you don’t have to act.  However, a potential benefit is that if a person knew that they were legally obliged to help it would force them to find the courage and confidence to act.

Therefore, as you can see there is no clear answer as to whether or not duty to rescue laws are a good thing. Different people will react differently in different situations. Some are brave, others are not. Some people have a lot to lose, some do not. So, attempting to introduce laws that apply to everyone is not an easy process.

If you’re needing advice or assistance with legal matters (including understanding your legal obligations), Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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