Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Law and Our Duty to Rescue

By Sherri Stewart

Imagine yourself walking along a sidewalk that borders a lake when you hear a child laughing. Your eyes land on a little boy toddling out into the waves. Nobody seems to be watching the child. Just then a big wave topples the child. Question: Do you have a legal duty to rescue the child? According to the Common Law, the answer is no. American Courts, in their infancy, adopted the Common Law of England as the standard for deciding criminal and civil cases. Over the years, however, most states instituted their own model penal codes, which replaced the Common Law. However, many of our oldest cases stem from those early principles derived from England. Let’s home in on something that touches all of us—our duty to others.

Even those not versed in the Bible know the story of the Good Samaritan. In that parable from Luke 10:30-37, a man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. When a priest and a Levite (both religious leaders) saw the man lying in the street, they walked to the other side. Then a Samaritan, a member of a disdained ethnic group, saw the beaten man, tended to his wounds, then took him to a local inn and paid for his care until he returned. Jesus told this story to show us we have a moral duty to help those who need us, but do we have a legal duty? In other words, can we be sued if we choose not to help someone in peril?

The general rule, according to the Common Law, is we do not have a legal duty to rescue someone in peril. For example, in L.S. Ayres & Co. v. Hicks (1942), when a young boy’s fingers got caught in a department store’s escalator, the employee didn’t stop the escalator right away, resulting in aggravation of the injury. The mother sued the store, but the courts determined that because the escalator was not defective, the store had no general duty to rescue the boy.

However, there are exceptions to the general rule. One, we have a duty if we have a special relationship with the victim. Obviously, a parent or a close relative has a legal duty to rescue the person in danger, as do those acting in loco parentis, such as babysitters and school personnel. Also people by contract have a duty to rescue—those whose jobs require them to rescue. Lifeguards, police officers, and firefighters have to make reasonable efforts to rescue someone in peril when they are at work.

It goes without saying that the one who causes an injury has a duty to rescue the person injured. For example, if a driver accidentally runs over someone crossing the street, he has a legal duty to do what he can to save the person’s life. Not only that, but the Common Law also states that one who causes a hazard that may result in others being hurt must either remove the hazard or warn others of the hazard. In Simonsen v. Thorin (1930), a delivery truck ran into a trolley pole, knocking it into the street. The driver left it there. The Simonsens collided with the pole and were injured. They sued the owner of the delivery truck and won because the driver hadn’t made a reasonable effort to remove the trolley pole he knocked over. 

Also, people have a duty to rescue a person in peril if they undertook or assumed the rescue and others relied on it. For example, a teenager is in danger of drowning, and a passerby jumps in the lake, yelling, “I’m coming to rescue you.” Others see him and leave. Then, the rescuer remembers he has an appointment and swims back to shore. In this case, because others relied on the rescuer, he has a legal duty. Decades ago, a woman was attacked in front of her apartment building. Many of the residents saw it happen but assumed other residents were calling the police so nobody did. The girl died. In Dudley v. Victor Lynn Lines, Inc (1958), a truck driver was very ill with cold-like symptoms, so his assistant called his wife to come get him, but she couldn’t, so she asked the foreman to call the doctor. He promised to do so but forgot. The illness turned out to be a heart attack, and the man died. When one assumes a rescue, he has a duty to finish it. 

So now you decide. A lifeguard finished his day’s work and was walking home when he heard the scream of someone drowning in a pool he passed. He didn’t see anyone else in the area, so he started running toward the voice but remembered the movie started in 25 minutes, and he still had to pick up his date. So he went home. Under the Common Law, does the lifeguard have a legal duty?

Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passions are traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She traveled to Paris for this book, and she still works daily on her French, although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks English. A recent widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and other authors' books in her newsletter.

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What Hides behind the Walls

If the Nazis stole your house, wouldn’t you be justified in stealing it back now that the war is over?

When Tamar Feldman admits to her husband, Daniel, and mentor, Neelie Visser, that she broke into her former home, they scold her for taking such a risk. Tamar is tired of being careful. She’s tired of living in the present, as if the past doesn’t matter. But the painting of the violin girl in her former bedroom draws her back again and again. She finally steals the painting to return it to its former owner. Now maybe this small act of justice will help her start to heal. What Tamar doesn’t realize is the past isn’t finished with her yet; in fact, it’s as close as the walls in her house and even follows her to Paris.

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  1. Thank you for your post today. You bring up a good question. Given the scenarios you spoke of, my guess would be that the lifeguard is not obligated to go to the drowning person, because no one saw him or knew he was a lifeguard (you said he couldn't see anyone else around). But can he live with the decision he made? That would be the harder question.

  2. It's a hard one because in his eyes, there was no one who saw him run toward her, but there may have someone who would have rescued the child but yielded to the lifeguard.