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Americans Have No (Legal) Duty to Help Each Other

Is there a place for altruism in the law?

John is taking a walk and sees that a blind man is about to step into the street in front of an approaching car. John could prevent the blind man from taking the step, just by a simple shout of warning—it would not even slow him down or interfere with his stroll. However, he chooses not to do so, and the blind man is hit by the car, leaving him injured. Would John be liable to the blind man in any way?

In most countries in Europe and Latin America, as well as in much of Africa, the answer would be yes. Bystanders who see that someone is about to face potential injury or death have a duty to rescue, and if they fail to do so, they could suffer sanctions or civil penalties. The duty is usually limited to what is “reasonable”—for example, you would not have to swim out into the ocean to save someone from a shark, particularly if the rescue would put you in peril as well. However, where the rescuer would not be substantially endangered, the duty exists.

In the United States of America, however, there is generally no legal duty to rescue. So, for example, in the notoriously tragic Kitty Genovese case, in which a 28-year old woman was repeatedly attacked and stabbed over the span of 30 minutes outside a New York apartment building in front of (reportedly) 38 witnesses—but none of those witnesses called the police or came to her aid—none of those witnesses were held liable in any way.

There are some exceptions to the no duty to rescue rule in America. First, some statutes impose specific duties to rescue in narrow situations—for example, “hit and run” statutes, which require that a driver involved in an automobile accident give assistance (or call 911) for those who are injured. The driver is not allowed to just walk away. Additionally, a few states (for example, Minnesota and Vermont) do have limited duty to rescue statutes. Second, there is also a notable exception to the no duty to rescue rule, where a “special relationship” exists. Examples of these relationships include parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee, and innkeeper-guest. Third, if a rescue is partially attempted, there are times when the rescuer must finish the rescue and cannot walk away halfway through. And fourth, if an individual’s own negligence or wrongful act caused the danger, then there is generally a duty to rescue. However, these are all exceptions to the general rule.

Many scholars have criticized the no duty to rescue rule as individualistic and reprehensible. Indeed, it does seem shocking and somewhat unconscionable. Why shouldn’t there be a duty to rescue, particularly when the rescue would not put the rescuer in danger, or cause significant hardship to the rescuer? And how do we motivate people to rescue each other when there is no legal duty to do so?

The first question is whether people help each other out of self-interest or out of altruism. If it is the former, then if the law is to motivate rescues, it should unquestionably either reward rescues or penalize witnesses who do not help. If it is the latter, then the question becomes more complicated—if people genuinely want to help each other, why don’t they do it all the time? And how can the law encourage them to help more?

Attorney and scholar David Kelley, who has applied a psychological framework to the no duty to rescue dialogue, notes that in order to effectuate a rescue, the rescuer must: (1) notice that someone needs help; (2) interpret the event as an emergency, (3) take responsibility; and (4) decide how to help.

As a starting point, in order to notice that someone needs help, people may need to be more aware of their surroundings. If someone is unaware that another person is in need of help, no amount of legal incentives (whether rewards of penalization) will incentivize a rescue. (However, if the law is severe enough, perhaps that would incentivize people to be more aware of their surroundings.)

Second, in order to interpret the event as an emergency, people would need to understand what is going on. However, this might not be so simple—the situation could be context-specific. For example, if I grow up in a city with a significant homeless population, then seeing someone sleeping on a park bench may not mean that immediate intervention is welcome. However, in other settings, seeing someone unconscious on a park bench may be an emergency situation. There may be strong psychological impediments to interpreting a situation as an emergency; people may be afraid of looking crazy or be the one that “overreacts.” This is particularly true if there are many witnesses, and no one else seems particularly concerned. A legal duty to rescue might help motivate rescuers inhibited by this if they understand that there are some costs (risk of liability) to counterweigh the risk of misinterpreting the situation.

Third, the rescuer must take responsibility. Research has shown that people are less likely to take responsibility when other people are around because they assume that others will take responsibility. This could be altered by a known duty to rescue since not doing so may result in liability, but it may also motivate people to think that others are even more likely to take responsibility since they, too, would be subject to the same law. So this factor may not be changed so much by a legal duty to rescue.

Lastly, the rescuer must decide how to help. Sometimes, people are worried that they will cause more harm than good. This may be exacerbated if the rescue must be performed in front of a lot of people, and there is the impression that maybe someone else would be a better rescuer instead. It is unclear what the extra stress of liability could have on this factor.

It would be irresponsible not to ask, however, if there would be drawbacks to over-incentivizing rescues. For example, what if the law is so harsh that people feel the need to "rescue" those who actually, in reality, are not experiencing emergencies? What if the law motivates people who really should not be administering amateur medical intervention to do so, for fear of being liable? Do individuals who are motivated out of altruism do a better job rescuing than individuals who are motivated out of obligation; and wouldn't those altruistic individuals attempt rescues regardless of the law?

Whether or not there is a legal duty to help, there certainly appears to be a moral duty for us to help each other. At heart, the pertinent question may be this: When you see someone in need, what is your thought process? Are you concerned that helping may be disruptive to your plans and schedule? Are you worried that you will cause more harm than good? Do you feel like there is no reason to help? And—on top of all that—would those thoughts change if you knew that there would be legal consequences to walking away?


David N. Kelley, A Psychological Approach to Understanding the Legal Basis of the No Duty to Rescue Rule, 14 BYU J. Pub. L. 271 (2013). Available at:


Melvin A. Eisenberg, The Duty To Rescue in Contract Law, 71 Fordham L. Rev. 647 (2002). Available at:

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