Good Samaritan Doctrine

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A principle of TORT LAW that provides that a person who sees another individual in imminent and serious danger or peril cannot be charged with NEGLIGENCE if that first person attempts to aid or rescue the injured party, provided the attempt is not made recklessly.

The Good Samaritan doctrine is used by rescuers to avoid civil liability for injuries arising from their negligence. Its purpose is to encourage

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emergency assistance by removing the threat of liability for damage done by the assistance. However, the assistance must be reasonable; a rescuer cannot benefit from the Good Samaritan doctrine if the assistance is reckless or grossly negligent.

Three key elements support a successful invocation of the Good Samaritan doctrine: (1) the care rendered was performed as the result of the emergency, (2) the initial emergency or injury was not caused by the person invoking the defense, and (3) the emergency care was not given in a grossly negligent or reckless manner.

Assume that a person has slipped on ice and broken a vertebra. The victim is unconscious, the accident has occurred in a desolate area, and the weather is dangerously cold. A passerby finds the injured person and moves the person to warmth and safety, but in the process aggravates the spinal injury. In a civil suit by the victim seeking damages for the additional injury, the passerby may successfully defeat the claims under the Good Samaritan doctrine.

The Good Samaritan doctrine is also used as a defense by persons who act to prevent or contain property damage. Assume that a passerby notices a fire has started just outside a cabin in the wilderness. If the passerby breaks into the cabin to look for a fire extinguisher, the passerby will not be liable for damage resulting from the forced entry. However, if the passerby runs down the cabin with a bulldozer to extinguish the fire, this will probably be considered grossly negligent or reckless, and the Good Samaritan doctrine will not provide protection from a civil suit for damages to the cabin.

The line separating negligence from gross negligence or recklessness is often thin. Hardingham v. United Counseling Service of Bennington County, 672 A. 2d 480 (Vt. 1995), illustrates the negligent acts that the Good Samaritan doctrine protects. In this case, the plaintiff, David Hardingham, sued United Counseling Service (UCS) when he became blind after drinking windshield wiper fluid. Hardingham...

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