Vail Law: Good Samaritans and the law
July 27, 2010
In the Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan is found at Luke 10:25-37. In answer to a question raised by an expert in the law asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by sharing a parable. The parable goes something like this:
A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. The highwaymen stripped him of his clothes, beat him and ran away, leaving him for dead. A priest who later happened down the same road saw the man but went around him, offering no help. Another man, a city dweller, also came upon the man and passed him by without assistance. Then a Samaritan (a man from the area around the Taurus Mountains which borders the Mediterranean Sea) came upon the man. When the Samaritan saw him, he became flushed with empathy. Rather than passing the man by, the Samaritan went to the injured man and tendered to him, bandaging his wounds. Then the Samaritan put the man on the back of his donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him through the night. The next day the Samaritan paid the innkeeper, charging him to look after the man, assuring the innkeeper that when he returned, he would pay the innkeeper for any additional expenses.
In a Socratic manner, Jesus asked the expert in law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” and the student answered correctly, “The one who had mercy on him.”
A few years back, the nation was riveted on another Good Samaritan, Wesley Autrey. As you may recall, Autrey was the New York construction worker who hurled himself onto the subway tracks in Harlem when an art student, Cameron Hollopeter, collapsed and fell onto the tracks as a southbound train came rumbling in. Hollopeter was having a seizure and, lying across the tracks, his arms and legs were flailing. Seeing Hollopeter, Autrey quickly handed his two young daughters over to two women who had also seen Hollopeter fall, then dived on to the tracks and covered Hollopeter with his body. Autrey managed to maneuver Hollopeter and himself into the trough between the tracks, just before the train came thundering in. Two cars brushed over them before the train was able to finally come to a stop. Both Hollopeter and Autrey emerged miraculously unscathed.
The legal questions, though, are these: What if, Wesley’s Autrey’s true heroics notwithstanding, he had failed and Hollopeter had been injured or killed? Would our hero have then be liable for contributing to, or even causing, his injury or death? Rather than celebrating him, would Mr. Hollopeter or his heirs – or even witnesses to the harrowing event – have grounds to sue?
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Most states, if not all, have good Samaritan acts or statutes. Generally, the statutes are premised upon the theorem that the nature of relationships determine duty. Logically, then, duties may differ based on the nature of the relationship between the parties. A surgeon, for example, has a higher duty of care to his patient than does, say, a lay person who comes upon an accident. Duties are, in significant part, determined by the assumption of an obligation to care for the welfare of another person in a particular setting. A doctor, for example, voluntarily assumes a duty of care towards her patient. A duty of care may also be imposed upon a party as a matter of law. For example, parents have a higher legal of duty of care to their children than does a stranger.
While in most settings, a person is expected to exercise that quantum of care as would the ordinary and prudent person in the exercise of reasonable judgment when in a similar setting and faced with similar circumstances, certain relationships impose a higher duty of care. In designing a building, an architect is expected to exercise that quantum of care as would a fellow architect of similar training in the exercise of reasonable prudence and care. Similarly, a surgeon must exercise that care expected of a surgeon.
The law has recognized, however, that the relationship of a good Samaritan and the person he or she is attempting to assist is special and, in recognition of that special relationship, legislatures have modified what might in other circumstances require a higher duty of care.
Speaking broadly, the statutes provide that any person who in good faith renders (or attempts to render) emergency care or assistance without compensation at the place of an emergency, is not liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions which the good Samaritan may have made in good faith.
In Colorado, the statute is to extended to include an exemption from liability for acts or omissions to employers of individuals who render emergency care or assistance, as long as the care in question was provided during the course of the employee’s employment. In such circumstance, both the employee and his employer are exempt under the statute. Further, limited immunity is afforded to all who perform a service or an act of assistance, without compensation, for the benefit of another person. Such volunteers will not be deemed to have assumed a duty of care where none otherwise existed. Similarly, one who adopts or enforces a policy or regulation to protect another person’s health or safety will not be deemed to have assumed a duty of care. Such volunteers are immune from civil liability, even if they are reckless, as long as they act in good faith.
You will note the omnipresence of words “good faith” in each of the above definitions. “Good faith,” at law remains a sort of fuzzy, technically imprecise concept but, in essence, means “an honest belief,” “without malice,” and “the absence of an intent to harm.” So long as one acts from good motives to help another person in distress, without the intent to cause harm and without compensation (that is, without charging for the assistance rendered), if the person is unable to help – or even makes things worse – he or she will be not considered at law to have assumed a duty of care to the victim and, it follows, will not be held liable in the event that the harm to which the victim was exposed is not avoided or even exacerbated by the good Samaritan’s attempt to help.
Back to the parable. When the expert in law answered that the man’s “neighbor” was the one who showed him mercy, according to Luke, Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” And that holds today; go and do likewise and the law will hold you harmless should you fail so long as your motives were sincere.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowner’s associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECo Tv 18 as host of “Community Focus”. Mr. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address, email@example.com