I'll elaborate on the title:

Someone asked me the question:

Do you believe people should be forced to allow the use of their organs without consent?

And in order to respond, I wondered what a court of law in the US would rule in the following scenario:

One day I find myself in the theoretical situation where someone is hanging off the edge of a building and wants to live, and I know with 99.9% surety (lets assume this number is accurate and I admit that I somehow knew this beyond a doubt, for the sake of the theoretical scenario) that if I hold onto them until help arrives, my life won't be at risk, I'll simply have to strain my muscles for an hour until help arrives and they're safe. But I choose to let the person fall to their death, purely and solely because I believe I have the right to decline to use my body in any way I choose not to use it. I do not fear that saving the person puts me in any danger, and I admit this on record - furthermore it's reasonable to believe that that risk assessment is accurate. Also, it would likely be very painful for me to hold onto the person for the hour until help arrives.

Now, in the eyes of a US court, am I a murderer?

Furthermore, if the answer is that I would be considered a murder in the eye of the law, what if we change one detail of the premise: Rather than knowing I have a 99.9% chance of saving the person's life while avoiding any physical or mental damage, that number becomes 90%. Or 80%. Is there any language within the law that specifically defines a threshold beyond which it's reasonable to fear for my health and allow the person to die in order to protect my health?

I realize the answer could vary from state to state, and if you need to use an example state, let's randomly say I'm in California.

  • 6
    You do not have a duty to save the life, unless otherwise lawfully bound to do so. You have no responsibility for the death, so while the media would lambasted you as a selfish coward (right or wrong, but they would) a court could not reasonably find you guilty of murder. Not even manslaughter, at that.
    – user4657
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 7:42
  • 1
    Not even civil liability for money damages.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 14:17
  • 1
    Where do you see a "right to use your body however you choose"? The law concerning the disposition of human tissues that have been removed from someone is distinct from the law governing the removal of those tissues. Furthermore, your decision to act or not is governed by law concerning actions, not by the impact that your actions might have on your tissues.
    – phoog
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 16:28
  • 2
    And, do you have "a right to use your body however you choose"? A policeman can tell you to move from your current position as part of his duties, the government can enact conscription and do way more than that, you do not have a right to strangle someone with your bare hands (no matter how much do you want to) and certainly you do not have the right to use your body to escape from a jail... Where does that "right" come from?
    – SJuan76
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 22:57

2 Answers 2


You have no reponsibility to save someone (unless you put them in that position / were responsible for his safety, this is called owing a "duty of care", e.g doctor to patient, road user to road user etc)

Legally you are not a murderer. But morally, your actions are reprehensible.

  • 4
    I dislike foul language, and I did not expect to see a day when it was appropriate to be used in an answer on SE, yet here it is. +1 For the wording, which under other circumstances I might flag, but here I hope it does not get edited out.
    – Aaron
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 10:55
  • @user662852 what does this actually mean? Commented Jul 31, 2023 at 18:54
  • @Seekinganswers Might be wrong but: "You are on this boat. You have to leave the harbour. There is no law that says you have to return. ". (With the alternative being a sinking boat and drowning passenger).
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 15:28

In no US jurisdiction does a failure to rescue someone constitute murder. Nor is there generally a common law duty to rescue. In California, there is a statutory duty to rescue, but this falls outside its scope. However, certain other states impose a greater duty to rescue; for instance, under Vermont law:

A person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall... give reasonable assistance to the exposed person

(This duty has certain exceptions - like when rendering assistance would put your hypothetical scumbag in danger - which, so far as you've said, do not apply here. Penalties for violating laws like this are generally small. See http://law.justia.com/codes/vermont/2012/title12/chapter23/section519, http://volokh.com/2009/11/03/duty-to-rescuereport-statutes/ and http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2168&context=wmlr)

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