Good Samaritan Laws: Good For America?
The biblical parable of the Good Samaritan is used to teach the virtue of helping someone in need. But, does this virtue carry over to our legal system? Would the Priest and the Levite be subject to prosecution in our courts for their unwillingness to assist a fellow traveler on the road to Jericho?
The questions above refer to Good Samaritan laws that impose a legal requirement on citizens to help people in distress. I should note, though, that there are in fact two different types of Good Samaritan Laws. The first type (currently law in the US) is defined by Black's Law 7th edition as 'a statute that exempts from liability a person (such as an off-duty physician) who voluntarily renders aid to another in imminent danger but negligently causes injury while rendering the aid.' Although there are problems with this law (makes it difficult for the person suing to prove a case against a medical professional, no liability for a 'Good Samaritan' exacerbating a serious condition by providing medical attention that they are not trained to provide, etc.), this is not the form of Good Samaritan law that I will argue against today.
The type of Good Samaritan law that will be discussed here is the type that exists in many countries (most notably, Canada) and that are becoming more prominent in the US today. Good Samaritan laws describe a legal requirement for citizens to assist people in distress, unless doing so would put them in harm's way. Good Samaritan laws, in certain parts of the nation, actually refer to laws that require citizens to assist individuals who need help (think Massachusetts, a la Seinfeld series finale.)
Good Samaritan laws go against all notions of free will and autonomy that are the bedrock of this nation. The American philosophy of jurisprudence does not permit the government to impose positive obligations on citizens. Because America was founded on the idea of inalienable individual rights, each person is the owner of his life. As such, no citizen has a positive legal obligation to others that are enforceable by government except those that are voluntarily accepted. All that government can require of you is that you abstain from violating the rights of others by subjecting them to force or fraud. Thus, even if you believe that morality requires you to help an accident victim, that requirement is not enforceable by government. One of the truly great things about this nation is our ability to allow people to act as they choose, so long as they are not actively hurting others. We cherish the ideas of autonomy and free will; values that will be undermined by Good Samaritan laws.
Good Samaritan laws have encountered little success in American common law. In a 1964 case in New York, a woman was stabbed outside her apartment building while her neighbors watched. No one called the police. When she screamed, the attacker fled, only to return twice to stab and kill her when no one responded. A second incident occurred in Massachusetts, in 1983, when tavern patrons watched a woman being raped. The assault lasted more than an hour, but no one intervened or called for help. The predominant excuse in both cases was a fear of getting involved.
I first heard about these cases last year, my first year at CLS. I immediately thought that these people were cowards. How could you sit and watch a stabbing or a rape and do nothing to stop it? How could you live with yourself after that? But, after a while I realized that I really had no right to judge these people. Of course, I would like to think that I would have offered help if I were in their situation. But, to be honest, it would be difficult for me to say whether I would have done differently.
I have never been in a situation similar to theirs. I have no idea how I would respond if I genuinely believed that helping these women would endanger my own life. And, I guess that’s the point. I have no right to judge others in this situation; I have no right to decide for them whether their feelings were valid or their fear real. I am not so virtuous that I can force my personal beliefs on others as a matter of law. I doubt that any of you are either.
Furthermore, Good Samaritan laws decrease the value of helping others. There is, of course, intrinsic and societal value to every good deed. This point is illustrated every year at the State of the Union address. This year, President Bush paid tribute to a Good Samaritan known around the country as the subway super hero. The practice of inviting surprise guests to the SOTU has been long held and began in 1982, when President Ronald Reagan recognized a Good Samaritan named Lenny Skutnick. And, that's how things work here in the US; people typically help accident victims, not because the law forces them to, but because they are motivated by goodwill.
In a free society, where people do not look to government to take care of them, goodwill is the rule, not the exception. Americans don't look to government to do what they ought to be doing for themselves. But, it would be quite different if these acts of "goodwill" were required as part of American citizenship. Requiring these deeds would decrease there value; they would no longer be seen as a testament to the great people in our nation. Instead, the deeds would be a constant reminder of our lack of free will and our legal obligations to others.
These laws would also place an undue burden on our citizens. They force citizens to make unnecessary and damaging judgment calls. For example, suppose a citizen sees a girl strapped to train tracks, a train fast approaching. He is close to a lever that will switch the tracks and save her life. He also knows that the other track will send train passengers to a faulty bridge that will surely collapse with the weight of the train. Now, with Good Samaritan laws he is obligated to do something. This citizen must now choose between the life of one girl and the lives of many on a train. And, if he chooses poorly, he is certain to face criminal prosecution as a result. These are decisions that no citizen should be forced to make; with good Samaritan laws not only are they are forced to make these decisions but could be imprisoned for their choice.
The complexity of these judgment calls leads to a final point: the difficulty of administrability. Every case would turn on issues of fact. People would be forced to come to court to explain why they felt they were unable to help. Those who do help and exacerbate the problem, will come to court to explain why their deed, no matter how noble, ended in tragedy. Under a Good Samaritan law, a person could be fined or sent to jail for making a judgment call that the court deems unacceptable. Not only would this seriously undermine our sense of justice but it would also create added congestion in the courts (which is honestly the last thing we need.)