The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," ran in the Champaign News Gazette.
A recent column said that if you’re in a car accident, and someone’s injured, you’re required to “render aid.” What if you’re just a witness? Are bystanders required to do anything?
No. There’s no “duty to rescue” in Illinois. Bystanders can’t be liable for doing nothing to help someone.
You can, however, be liable for bad help. Or for starting to help, and stopping. If you do something, you must act reasonably.
The Illinois Supreme Court summed up the basic legal rule in a 1996 case: “Our common law generally imposes no duty to rescue an injured stranger upon one who did not cause the injury in the first instance.”
This makes one exception clear. If you caused the injury, you do have a duty to rescue. It’s like the state law that requires you to render aid if you’re in a car accident with injuries. Then, you’re not just a bystander.
Another exception is if you have a special relationship with the person needing to be rescued. Some examples of those relationships are parent and child; common carriers and passengers; and property owners and guests.
So, a duty to rescue only exists if you have a special relationship with the victim, or if you caused the injury, or created the danger. Otherwise, you can stand by and do nothing, and have no legal liability.
The idea that you can watch someone drown—or even film it, as several people recently did, without doing anything to help—is upsetting, and clashes pretty directly with lots of moral and philosophical teaching. In the Bible, for instance, Jesus says of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help when others didn’t, “Go and do likewise.”
The no duty to rescue rule is usually explained by distinguishing between errors of commission and omission. Other explanations are: we shouldn’t rely on non-professionals for help; it may be impractical to figure out who in a crowd of onlookers is liable; or, imposing liability might make people avoid activities where they might have to rescue someone.
Others point out that this hard-hearted rule doesn’t really stop people from trying to rescue others. In fact, one scholar’s study says 60 times more rescuers die than accident victims who were left unaided.
Since tort law liability requires that you breach a duty, the no duty to rescue rule absolves you of liability for doing nothing. You can, however, be liable for doing something. If you act, you have a legal duty to act reasonably. If you don’t, it’s negligence that could make you liable.
I couldn’t find any Illinois cases imposing liability on regular, non-professional Good Samaritans who tried to help complete strangers. I therefore don’t have true-life examples of how a rescuer would have to mess up to become liable to someone.
Illinois has a Good Samaritan Act. It mostly protects licensed health professionals, or people with CPR training, against liability for providing free, emergency assistance. For people with no special training or certifications, the Act only protects those helping a choking victim in a restaurant, and those using a heart defibrillator.