While I know that in common law countries there's no legal requirement to provide assistance, is there any liability for failing to do so once you've volunteered to?

I'm interested both in a general answer, and in a hypothetical variation of the following specific example: http://www.lfpress.com/2016/02/17/video-boy-dangles-from-whistler-bc-chairlift

A boy was dangling from a chairlift. The attendant relied on guests to hold the firemen's net stretched in order to catch the boy when he fell.

Say I'm in that situation, one of these guests, and I'm holding up my end of the net, but change my mind and let it go. What is the threshold where I would be committing a crime or opening up myself to civil liability? If I let go after the boy already starts falling? What if I let go before he falls, but while still knowing there is no time to find someone to replace me?

I'm interested mainly in North American common law context (US and Canada except Quebec).

2 Answers 2


While there is no legal requirement to provide assistance, there is in many jurisdictions no liability shield protecting an ordinary civilian (not police/fire/EMS) if their actions cause harm. If you witness someone having a heart attack, and you give CPR and by doing so crack a rib, you can be held liable for some or all of the resulting medical bills for said rib, or even for the heart attack itself if you get the wrong judge and jury on the wrong day.

Case in point, if you're holding the net at any point (and are thus a "good Samaritan"), but then release your hold on the net with no opportunity for a replacement, resulting in harm to the person jumping/falling, you can be held liable for that damage. Without a shield law, all the plaintiff would have to prove is that your action was the proximate cause of his harm (that had you not dropped the net, he would have been significantly less harmed, or unharmed). A fairly low bar, frnakly.

"Good Samaritan" laws generally provide immunity from liability in cases where a reasonable person would have done the same thing you did. That raises the bar for the plaintiff, as they must now prove negligence; that your actions are not what a reasonable person would have done because said reasonable person would have recognized too great a risk of additional harm.

Some states, not all, have this shield law. In a few of those states, case law has lowered the threshold to demonstrate negligent behavior, significantly weakening the protection of the law (the case law for instance may assume a "reasonable man" attempting to give CPR has taken a CPR course, identifying an inherent risk in an untrained person doing it, so attempting to give CPR without having taken the course is negligence in itself).

  • It's implied in your answer that letting go of the net is an action. I'm struggling to see that, however; it is really the lack of continuation of the action of holding it. That is, one is simply bailing out, stopping the action. So, to me it seems incomparable to the CPR example. An analogy that would make sense more is that I start performing CPR, then stop doing it early. Being liable in that situation implies that, once I've initiated the action, I am obliged to continue it. Yet, such an obligation completely goes against basic liberty. Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 0:16
  • If a selfless bystander gives CPR in good faith, not expecting monetary compensation, and cracks a rib, protective laws are there. See cprseattle.com/blog/… and similar sites for some basic discussion.
    – WBT
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 0:43

If your chairlift was on a ski slope in Vermont (apparently unique among states in this regard), and the reason why you let go was arbitrary (e.g. it was not to protect you or someone else from danger or avoid interference with emergency officials' duties), you could be fined up to $100. That would also be true if you stood by without holding the net in the first place, as long as doing so was needed and would have been reasonable and not dangerous nor interfering with the officials.

Vermont Title 12, Chapter 23, section 519 on Emergency Medical Care:

(a) A person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall, to the extent that the same can be rendered without danger or peril to himself or without interference with important duties owed to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person unless that assistance or care is being provided by others.
(c) A person who willfully violates subsection (a) of this section shall be fined not more than $100.00. (1967, No. 309 (Adj. Sess.), §§ 2-4, eff. March 22, 1968.)

Section (b) is part of Vermont's liability shield for Good Samaritans, there's more here.

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