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There is a commonly held belief that an unqualified member of the public takes a legal risk in giving emergency first aid in case the patient dies or is injured as a result. This theory invariably refers to some unnamed US case where a passer-by attempted CPR on the victim of a heart attack, was unsuccessful, and was sued as a result. This came up on a first aid course I attended, and the tutor was fairly certain that the risk is very small if the passer-by takes such care as is reasonable given the lack of expertise.

Was the tutor correct?

I'd be interested in views from other jurisdictions, but my main interest is the position in the UK.

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    Wouldn't Good Samaritan laws relieve the passer-by of any responsibility, or are they nonexistent in the UK? – HDE 226868 May 27 '15 at 20:33
  • I took first aid in the US and we were told that lack of expertise is not an excuse for bad first aid. If you are not trained in CPR then don't do it. If that passer by had no training then care was possibly not reasonable. The first rule is do no harm. Can you justify that your actions are likely necessary and very likely not going to do harm? Are you are acting within you level of training. I used to ski patrol and we would stabilize and get them off the hill. People that knew nothing about first aid would give bad advice like straighten that leg can't you see he is in pain? – paparazzo Jul 30 '15 at 16:06
  • @Frisbee "The first rule is do no harm" i believe that's usually in reference to the Hippocratic oath, taken by doctors – Andy Aug 5 '15 at 23:44
  • @Andy Yes and it is a good rule – paparazzo Aug 6 '15 at 2:39
  • @Frisbee It is, but a layperson administering CPR can't necessarily accurately judge if they'd do more harm or not. – Andy Aug 6 '15 at 12:32
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This effectively comes under duty of care. Firstly, in England and Wales there is no obligation to be a Good Samaritan - in other words, there is no obligation to be a rescuer. Until you intervene to try and rescue someone, you do not owe that person a duty.

As soon as you do intervene, however, you do owe them a duty. Specifically, you owe them a duty not to make the situation worse (Horsey and Rackley, Tort Law, 3rd ed., OUP 2013, p. 75). The specific situation Horsey and Rackley give is that of resuscitating a drowning child and breaking a rib as you do so: this may be 'making the situation worse' (Horsey and Rackley, pp. 75-76).

Does this mean that you'll be liable if you give someone first aid and in doing so, you make the situation worse? Not necessarily, because, as Horsey and Rackley point out, duty is different to liability. Using the drowning child example again, they state:

So, for example, while someone who intervenes may owe a duty not to make the situation worse, their actions would still be judged against those of a 'reasonable person' in the circumstances (and so if a reasonable person would have tried to resuscitate the child in the same way, there will be no breach of their duty and therefore no liability to pay compensation.) (p.76)

The 'reasonable person' standard corresponds to what you mentioned in the question about lack of expertise. If a doctor intervenes in such a situation, the standard of care they'd be expected to give would be higher than, say, for someone who's simply done a basic first aid course. The question is whether or not you've acted as the reasonable person in your situation would have done.

On that basis, then, your tutor is pretty much correct: so long as you take such care as is reasonable based on your expertise, or lack thereof, then under English and Welsh law, you're unlikely to be liable.

  • 1
    Only one point I'd make: the situation may be different in Scotland, where the law of Delict would apply (tort doesn't exist in Scots law). – Flup Jun 2 '15 at 14:39
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    Good point, Flup - I know nothing of Scots law, so didn't think to comment on it! I'll edit the post to refer to English and Welsh law to avoid confusion. – lc9315 Jun 2 '15 at 15:29
  • I only found that out yesterday in the pub :) – Flup Jun 2 '15 at 15:32
  • @lc9315, Ic, so in conclusion, are you saying that it's best to just "mind your own business"? – Pacerier Jun 11 '15 at 3:40
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    No, not necessarily. I've been told in law school that since there's no legal penalty for not intervening, and since you owe a duty as soon as you do get involved, it's better to leave it. In practice, though, as I said in my answer, you're unlikely to be found liable. You are highly unlikely to have breached the standard of a reasonable lay person in giving first aid. And a lot of tort cases are decided on policy grounds; it would be a terrible policy to find people liable for trying to save lives. – lc9315 Jun 11 '15 at 8:18
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This question is covered by the so-called Good Samaritan Laws.

These vary from country to country, and within the United States, from state to state. Generally, a "qualified" (that is formally trained or professionalized) person in a given area is protected by such laws. In some juridisctions, mere "good intentions" does not protect a caregiver from being sued, especially if such care was rendered negligently, or by a patently unqualified person.

  • To expand on your last sentence. If someone is choking and you perform chest compression breaking several ribs and internal injuries you could be held as negligent since you applied the wrong first aid causing more damage. – Chad May 27 '15 at 20:45
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    Are there Good Samaritan laws in the U.K.? – HDE 226868 May 27 '15 at 20:56
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    @HDE226868 No, they have never been felt to be necessary or to add anything to the existing law here. – Calchas Aug 31 '15 at 2:27
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In the Czech Republic, the crime of causing death by negligence (or causing severe wounds by negligence) applies to giving first aid as well and can cause you to be sentenced to jail (however, the crime has a relatively light penalty and the punishent is pretty much always a suspended sentence).

There are no Good Samaritan Laws here. However, I don't think anyone was ever even brought to court for badly administering first aid. A leader of an emergency dispatch department wrote up an article about this topic (Czech only).

The relevant parts are:

One should not be afraid of "legal problems" when giving first aid - if one acts proportionately. [...] If we evidently try to save a life, there is nothing to lose and nobody can reproach this of us - legally or morally. Problems could maybe occur in the case of giving "first aid" by force or against the will of the patient. [...] Thus, the rescuer cannot be guaranteed full immunity in case he commits a mistake, but such a mistake would have to be clearly damaging and, additionally, obvious to a layman. This author does not know of any case, in which a person would be sentenced for this and [...] it's very difficult to imagine any kind of legal responsibility in connection with giving first aid.

On the other hand, if you are an on-duty medical professional, you may very well be responsible (even criminally) when you make a mistake.

5

In Germany, there is legal obligation to give first aid as well as helping in other emergencies (§323c STGB), failure to render assistance is fined by imprisonment for 1 year maximum. However, this obligation becomes invalid if it would endanger the helper (you don't have to try to rescue someone from drowning if you can't swim), or if this would break other commitments (an ambulance that carries a dying patient to hospital does not have to stop for an accident, or if you're looking after infants, and leaving them alone to give first aid would endanger the infants, you're not obliged to give first aid). But you do have to call the emergency number, or make others aware of the situation and ask them to help.

This site also states:

  • You are protected from damage claims by the victim unless you act in gross negligence or wilfully; missing knowledge doesn't count as gross negligence
  • If you break other laws in order to protect higher legal objectives, you're excempt from punishment; for example, you may break a window of a car in summer if a child in that car is in danger of dehydration, or you may break a window/door to enter a house if needed to get to a telephone
  • If the injured person rejects your help, you have to honor their decision. However, if someone is unconscious, you may assume they agree to you helping, even if they rejected before, because their condition has declined, and the rejection related to their former, better condition.
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    I would add that you never have to try to rescue anyone from drowning. Even if you can swim, rescuing someone from drowning is very dangerous and there's a high probability you will drown both. – Petr Hudeček Aug 8 '15 at 11:21
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No health care professional has ever been successfully sued in the UK when intervening in an unexpected emergency, lacking a prior relationship with the patient, even when it is alleged he has made the situation worse.

...very few cases have arisen in which a [Health Care Professional] of any discipline has been sued for attending and rendering medical Samaritan assistance to a victim---and even more strikingly, the author's searches have revealed no cases in which liability has been successfully made out against a [Health Care Professional] in these circumstances in England, Canada, or Australia to date.

Good Samaritan Liability

It is difficult to imagine that a non-professional could be held to a higher standard, but I confess I have been unable to find much in the way of definitive, modern case law on the topic.

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