Law in Contemporary Society

Good Samaritan Laws

Driving across the country, two young graduate students were severely injured when a drunk driver collided head-on with their ’97 Buick. Multiple cars stopped, as the highway was now blocked, but no one came to their assistance until the ambulance arrived some time later. While morally questionable, should the failure of the onlookers to be Good Samaritans and attempt to render assistance if possible--at the very least to pick up the phone and call 911--be declared a criminal offense? In order to evaluate the value of Good Samaritan laws, the problems surrounding enforcement and the drafting of clear laws, coupled with objections based on notions of autonomy and liberty, must be weighed against concepts of moral duty and the desire to encourage positive social action. Although at first glance condemnation and criminal sanctions appear justified, ultimately such laws present more problems than solutions.

How They Work

Good Samaritan laws require that bystanders who can safely come to the aid of a victim, who is exposed to imminent physical danger, do so even if there is no special relationship between the victim and the rescuer. While common in European countries, Good Samaritan statutes that carry criminal penalties and create an affirmative duty to act, rather than simply absolve a volunteer of liability for an attempted rescue, have only been enacted in a handful of states in America.

There are three basic models of criminal Good Samaritan laws: (i) states may enact expansive statutes that impose a duty to aid in the face of accident, “acts of God” and acts of criminal third parties, (ii) a more limited duty to report a felony in progress and a victim in need of assistance, or, (iii) the narrowest model, requiring only that a bystander report specific types of crimes that they witness or know of, predominately sexual assaults.

In Justification of Good Samaritan Laws

The criminal law system should, to a large degree, reflect the values of society. In order to have substantive effect, the system should, to the extent society deems it practicable, punish certain forms of anti-social behavior and encourage socially positive behavior. To not aid another, whether it is out of selfishness, apathy, or hurry, would normally be considered anti-social behavior that detracts from society as a whole.

Good Samaritan laws may be viewed as a demonstration of the importance of intervention within a community, and responsibility for your fellow man. It is true, however, that not every societal value is codified in our criminal law. It could be argued that laws that are largely symbolic, that do not actually affect how people behave in society, and which may ultimately cause more harm than good, should not be enacted. One must determine whether the philosophy behind Good Samaritan laws justifies the conflation of moral and legal duties.

Why they are Just Not Worth It

People who are inclined to help others, true Good Samaritans, will continue to do so regardless of whether there is legislation compelling them to act. “Bad” Samaritans, those who would ignore a victim without offering aid, either out of fear, insensitivity to others, a connection to the criminal perpetrating the act, or a prior record, will continue to do so regardless of whether their failure to affirmatively act has been legislated to be a misdemeanor.

Supporters of these laws argue that they might help the undecided to act by reminding them of their moral and civic duty. These laws may also combat the so-called bystander effect, whereby people in the vicinity of an accident feel that it is the duty of their fellow bystanders to act, not themselves, or may anticipate mockery if they are the only ones to act. However, Good Samaritan Laws may also discourage those passive witnesses who originally chose to stay out of the situation from coming forward later with information due to fear of implicating themselves, while simultaneously providing leverage for the police to intimidate those within the vicinity of a crime into coming forward with information. While this type of intimidation may at first glance appear to be a useful tool in the police’s arsenal, it may also lead to more harassment or racial stereotyping within communities.

From a purely practical standpoint, it is difficult for law enforcement to apply Good Samaritan laws, which may explain why they are so rarely enforced. In many instances, a prosecutor would have to find, and then prove, that a bystander who had already left the scene actually witnessed the victim’s plight, recognized the danger, and chose to violate their duty to assist. It would be difficult to prove who did and did not hear a victim’s scream, or to locate every vehicle whose driver may have had a cell phone but went zooming past an accident. Further, individuals present at the scene of a crime may experience fear or terror, and therefore have a legitimate defense that they did not think that they could act without putting themselves or loved ones in danger. In order to protect against arbitrary enforcement, prosecutors would also have to determine clear standards that passed the vagueness test of what constituted reasonable assistance in different circumstances.

In addition to the burdens on law enforcement, there will be times when Good Samaritan laws may cause more harm than good. If citizens with no training in CPR or medical rescue believe that they will be punished for not assisting a victim in imminent need, they may blindly rush into a situation for which they have no preparation for, or practice in handling. The victim might very well sue in civil court for the further harm that was recklessly caused by his or her “rescuer”, but the damage will have already been inflicted.

Good Samaritan laws may also be criticized for their philosophical basis. America is a country built on the idea of individual freedom and liberty. Good Samaritan laws can therefore be perceived as “forced altruism,” or as unwarranted state intervention into what should be a personal, moral choice. While proponents of Good Samaritan laws may argue that affirmative duties to act, such as a doctor’s duty to report suspected child abuse, do exist, the majority of criminal law punishes actions, rather than omissions or inaction.


To create a duty to assist and implement criminal sanctions against those who fail to uphold this duty, initially appears both correct and moral. Assuming that people follow the law as written, one could conclude that it would improve social welfare and remedy the dual problems that good will does not always come from within and that people may not always act in the best interest of society as a whole. In reality, however, Good Samaritan laws probably have very little effect on how people acted. Given difficulties such as enforcement and questions of personal autonomy, the enactment of broad duties to aid which carry criminal sentences cannot be justified simply by their ability to act as a moral compass.

*As a side note, while editing this paper for the second time I found the story of one families quest to get a Good Samaritan law passed in Washington State following the death of their son. If anyone is interested, you can find it here.


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r11 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:51 - IanSullivan
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