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Innocent Bystanders: The Rewards and Risks of Lending a Helping Hand

When most people see others injured or in danger, their immediate instinct is to jump in and try to assist in any way possible. While people’s motives are undoubtedly pure, the real value of their help and the wisdom of their intervention is not always clear-cut. In worst-case scenarios, well-meaning bystanders may not only fail to rescue victims, but they may also exacerbate injuries or bring additional injuries upon themselves through their rescue efforts.

No good deed goes unpunished

In a particularly heartrending example of a rescue gone horribly wrong, a California woman was sued by the close friend whom she attempted to save from the aftermath of a serious car accident. Seeing her friend in the wreckage, the would-be do-gooder yanked the paralyzed victim from her smoking vehicle, fearful that the car could explode at any minute. Unfortunately, the victim was paralyzed, and the rescue effort contributed to the events that left her a paraplegic. In response, the victim sued her friend for making her injuries worse. The lawsuit was initially permitted under California law, but the law was eventually changed in the legislature to prohibit further suits like this.

Duty to rescue versus reasonable assistance laws

There are essentially two distinct issues at play. Under Florida law, paramedics, EMTs and emergency medical responders (first responders) have a “duty to rescue,” which obligates them to give any aid that they are trained to provide. This should not be confused with Florida’s reasonable assistance law, which applies to lay bystanders without medical or rescue training. Under this statutory provision, bystanders may be extended immunity from civil liability for their rescue efforts provided that they respond “as an ordinary reasonably prudent person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances.”

Everyday heroes in our own backyard

In a recent Fort Lauderdale accident, a Florida man didn’t pause to weigh the legal implications of his actions. He just jumped into the canal in which an accident victim’s car was quickly filling with water and helped pull her from the wreckage, saving her life in the process. The rescuer, Michael Clancy, refused to be called a hero, claiming he was “just helping out [a] fellow human being.”

When accidents occur and rescue efforts worsen injuries, the time has arrived to speak with legal counsel who can determine the precise causes of any damages suffered.

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