Laws to Protect Those Who Help

According to Oxford Languages Dictionary, a "samaritan," is a "a charitable or helpful person." 

I think the word is pretty well used and understood, and most people will conjure up an image of that person who shows up and helps change a tire or otherwise gives assistance. The term that is most often used is the "Good Samaritan," which made me wonder if there's a "Bad Samaritan," and if so, what does that person do to both be bad and also offer help or assistance. Well, turns out, yes, there are "bad samaritans," and I'll get to that later. 

The whole reason I bring this up is to discuss "Good Samaritan Laws" and the protection they can offer you if you are trying help someone in need. I always put my disclaimer at the bottom of my articles about how to use any medical information I discuss, but I'll add another one here in that I'm not a lawyer. I do obey many laws, but I'm certainly not a law expert. Fear of lawsuits certainly drives human behavior, and it's well documented to occur in healthcare

According to this 2015 article on the website, "The United States is already the most litigious society in the world. We spend about 2.2 percent of gross domestic product, roughly $310 billion a year, or about $1,000 for each person in the country on tort litigation, much higher than any other country." Although this article indicates that the US barely makes it to the top 5.

Either way, no one wants to get sued, and Good Samaritan laws play a vital role in providing legal protection for individuals who render assistance to those in need during emergencies or accidents. While these laws vary from state to state, this is an overview of how these laws work in the New England states. 

  • Connecticut: Connecticut, like most states, has Good Samaritan Laws with the overriding purpose of encouraging professionals and laypersons to help those in need of emergency medical assistance or first aid, even when the actor is under no legal obligation to do so. Although there are a few exceptions, the immunity shields volunteers from claims involving ordinary negligence only. Volunteers may be held liable for claims arising from acts of gross or wanton and willful negligence or intentional misconduct (See link for details). 
  • Maine: Notwithstanding any inconsistent provisions of any public or private and special law, any person who voluntarily, without the expectation of monetary or other compensation from the person aided or treated, renders first aid, emergency treatment or rescue assistance to a person who is unconscious, ill, injured or in need of rescue assistance, shall not be liable for damages for injuries alleged to have been sustained by such person nor for damages for the death of such person alleged to have occurred by reason of an act or omission in the rendering of such first aid, emergency treatment or rescue assistance, unless it is established that such injuries or such death were caused willfully, wantonly or recklessly or by gross negligence on the part of such person.
  • Massachusetts: Any person who, in good faith, attempts to render emergency care including, but not limited to, cardiopulmonary resuscitation or defibrillation, and does so without compensation, shall not be liable for acts or omissions, other than gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, resulting from the attempt to render such emergency care. 
  • New Hampshire: If any person in good faith renders emergency care at the place of the happening of an emergency or to a victim of a crime or delinquent act or while in transit in an ambulance or rescue vehicle, to a person who is in urgent need of care as a result of the emergency or crime or a delinquent act, and if the acts of care are made in good faith and without willful or wanton negligence, the person who renders the care is not liable in civil damages for his acts or omissions in rendering the care, as long as he receives no direct compensation for the care from or on behalf of the person cared for. Any person rendering emergency care shall have the duty to place the injured person under the care of a physician, nurse, or other person qualified to care for such person as soon as possible and to obey the instructions of such qualified person. 
  • Rhode Island: No person who voluntarily and gratuitously renders emergency assistance to a person in need thereof including the administration of life saving treatment to those persons suffering from anaphylactic shock shall be liable for civil damages which result from acts or omissions by such persons rendering the emergency care, which may constitute ordinary negligence. This immunity does not apply to acts or omissions constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton conduct.
  • Vermont: Emergency medical care (a) A person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall, to the extent that the same can be rendered without danger or peril to himself or without interference with important duties owed to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person unless that assistance or care is being provided by others. (b) A person who provides reasonable assistance in compliance with subsection (a) of this section shall not be liable in civil damages unless his acts constitute gross negligence or unless he will receive or expects to receive remuneration. Nothing contained in this subsection shall alter existing law with respect to tort liability of a practitioner of the healing arts for acts committed in the ordinary course of his practice. (c) A person who willfully violates subsection (a) of this section shall be fined not more than $100.00. (1967, No. 309 (Adj. Sess.), §§ 2-4, eff. March 22, 1968.)

It's important to note that while these laws generally protect those who provide assistance in good faith, they may not cover individuals who act recklessly or with gross negligence. They also typically don't provide coverage if payment or some other consideration is expected for such aid or if there's a pre-existing arrangement to render the aid. And, if you help someone who is unconscious, consent is typically implied, but you'd need consent from someone who is awake.

I mentioned "bad samaritans" and it turns out that some states have Bad Samaritan laws which are also called "duty to act" laws. These laws essentially establish a duty to aid those in need. For example, looking at the details of Vermont's Good Samaritan Law above, you'll see that section "(c)" notes that a person who does not fulfill the obligations in part "(a)" can be fined up to $100. 

Many of the Bad Samaritan laws seem to specifically apply to victims of certain crimes such as sex trafficking (and can include a duty to rescue or duty to report), but three states – Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont – impose a broad obligation to rescue individuals in an emergency.

Rhode Island's law states: Any person at the scene of an emergency who knows that another person is exposed to, or has suffered, grave physical harm shall, to the extent that he or she can do so without danger or peril to himself or herself or to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person. Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a petty misdemeanor and shall be subject to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six (6) months, or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500), or both. 

In conclusion, Good Samaritan laws in the New England states serve to encourage people to come to the aid of others in times of emergency without fear of undue liability. And while it's wild to think that some states actually need laws to make people help someone in need, stories like this are why it's necessary sometimes.

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