Last month, one frantic redditor desperately asked for advice when they received a letter declaring that they were being charged for battery after performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking man. Despite saving the man’s life, the demand letter alleged that he bruised a rib in doing so, hence the battery charge.
Many fellow redditors promptly reassured the person that they should be covered by so-called Good Samaritan laws, which are designed to protect the general public from liability during good faith rescue and first aid attempts (unless the person blatantly and purposefully makes things even worse). For instance, here’s an excerpt from the Good Samaritan law in Oregon:
“No person may maintain an action for damages for injury, death or loss that results from acts or omissions of a person while rendering emergency medical assistance unless it is alleged and proved by the complaining party that the person was grossly negligent in rendering the emergency medical assistance.”
Good Samaritan laws also only apply if the person was performing the rescue acts without any expectations of being rewarded. Put simply, you don’t qualify for Good Samaritan protection if you’re getting paid to rescue someone, since paid rescuers are expected to do their jobs correctly and can be held accountable for blatant mistakes. For example, the Good Samaritan law in California states, “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”
Fortunately for this distraught redditor, the demand letter turned out to be some form of cruel joke enacted by their friends (which is pretty messed up). But some people really have been sued for lending a helping hand, and sometimes Good Samaritan laws aren’t enough to protect them. Take Las Vegas native Lisa Torti, who was successfully sued for pulling her now-paralyzed friend from the wreckage of a L.A. car accident in 2004. While Torti argued that she was worried that the car would catch fire or blow up, the lawsuit against her claimed that she was the one who caused the paralysis by rushing to move her friend, and the judges ruled against her.
Needless to say, the ruling against Torti was met with intense backlash, and many argued that it would force others in a similar position to hesitate before coming to the aid of a person in need. If anything good can be said to have come of this case, in fact, it’s that it brought to light some of the existing failures within our Good Samaritan laws: Since then, California Good Samaritan law has been revised to include more protections for the average do-gooder. That said, civilians are still less protected in California than paramedics and doctors.
It should be noted, of course, that Good Samaritan laws generally work to protect earnest rescuers, even if they accidentally make things worse. Case in point: Truck driver Dennis Carter, who found himself in a pickle when his leg became stuck between a loading dock and his truck. Carter proceeded to call out to passerby Larry Reese, asking him to pull the truck forward in order to free his immobilized leg. Unfortunately, when Reese attempted to move the truck forward, it slid backward instead, crushing Carter’s leg in the process. While Carter attempted to sue Reese in 2016 for the incident, the court agreed to protect the man under Ohio’s Good Samaritan law, since he was only trying to help (and presumably because it wasn’t his fault that Carter became stuck in the first place).
Now, it’s worth noting that Good Samaritan laws vary from state to state, so it might be useful to check your own state laws if you want to be prepared to lend a hand if the worst happens. And while former Stanford Law student Joseph Montoya is fairly confident that most Good Samaritan laws should protect you in any reasonable scenario—especially after the impact that the Torti case had on lawmakers—he also warns that they might encourage some people to help in severe scenarios that are best handled by emergency personnel: “The one problem is that, with severe injuries, you’re better off leaving it to the professionals. For instance, if someone has a bad neck or back injury, you shouldn’t try to move them at all, but people may try anyway, with good intentions, but that backfires.”
Still, Montoya says Good Samaritan laws are better in place than not. “I still think the net positive effect of protecting people who try and help is better than penalizing it and ensuring that people won’t want to help,” he says. “For reference, please see the opening scene in The Incredibles, when that civilian sues Mr. Incredible for injuring him while saving the dude from suicide.”
Hey, I can’t say for certain that it wouldn’t happen.