Do you have a legal duty in California to help in an emergency?

In Cocoa, Florida, a group of teenagers watched and mocked a disabled man last week as he drowned in a fenced-off pond. 

The Brevard County State Attorney's Office released the video to FLORIDA TODAY and said the teens' lack of action had "no moral justification" but added that the teens do not appear to have violated any laws.

While it's seems both shocking and cruel that a group of people could standby and do nothing as someone helplessly dies, there are no laws in neither Florida or California stating that a person is responsible for saving someone's life in a situation similar to the drowning incident.

In fact, there is no common law in the U.S. that states the public, outside of paid service such as law enforcement, doctors and firefighters, has a duty to rescue someone in danger.

However, in the state of California there are some exceptions to having a duty as a citizen to intervene in some situations. Currently, there are ten states with "duty to report" laws including California. The Golden State's laws don't relate to saving a person in an emergency such as a car crash or fire, but refer to reporting a crime or danger when it involves a child under 14 years old.

Citizens are required by law to report knowledge of rape or murder of child under 14 to law enforcement, unless a person "is related to either the victim or the offender, including a spouse, parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, or other person related by consanguinity or affinity." according to Ca. Penal Code 152.3

The other exception to the law is not reporting a crime against a child if the person has "reasonable fear for his or her own safety or for the safety of his or her family."

Failure to comply with this law is a misdemeanor and is punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 or up to six months in county jail or both.

Also relating to rescues, is the "Good Samaritan Law" in California. This law serves more to protect a citizen from being sued if a rescue attempt ends up doing more harm to a person in need of help. For example, the case of Alexandra Van Horn v. Lisa Torti where it was alleged Torti made Van Horn's injuries worse by yanking her out of a vehicle after a 2004 crash.

At the time, the Good Samaritan Law's wording from the original 1980 statute only covered those aiding in medical services in emergency situations. Torti lost the case because the law didn't cover non-medical services.

Since the case, the law has changed. Today, the law, under the California Health and Safety Code 1799.102 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. The scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered."

The law also encourages Good Samaritans to help others, without fear of being sued.

"It is the intent of the Legislature to encourage other individuals to volunteer, without compensation, to assist others in need during an emergency, while ensuring that those volunteers who provide care or assistance act responsibly."

It's important to note, there may be situations where a person may be found guilty of negligence if the person created the danger or if a person begins a rescue, then abandons the attempt under no reasonable circumstances. California law does state, that an "act or omission constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct" can result in a person being found liable in an emergency situation.

© 2017 KXTV-TV


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