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The Common Law

Legal duty to render assistance to others in distress?

By Luke Ellis, August 6, 2004, Columns

Does the law require me to help people in a dangerous situation (like about to be hit by a car)?

While most of us would agree that you have a moral duty to help a person in need if possible, as a general rule, a bystander is under no obligation to come to the aid of another person in distress. Accordingly, under Texas law, a bystander who did not create the dangerous situation is not generally required to prevent injury to other people in a dangerous situation.

To help illustrate this rule, consider this classic example. While enjoying the afternoon on a boat in Lake Travis, a man sees a young child drowning in the lake. There is a life preserver right next to the man on the boat, and it would take little, if any, effort on his part to throw it to the drowning child. Rather than help the kid, the man decides he would rather continue cruising down the lake. Putting aside the seriously troubling moral implications of this decision, under the law, the man on the boat is under no general legal duty to render assistance, thereby allowing the man to avoid legal responsibility for failing to save the drowning child.

Like most areas of the law, there are exceptions to the general rule that a bystander owes no duty to render assistance to a person in distress. One of the most important exceptions is that if the bystander negligently created the dangerous situation, then the bystander has a duty to do something about it to prevent injury to others. Using the previous example, if the man in the boat pushed the child in the water as a joke, the man could be held legally responsible for failing to render assistance.

Hopefully, even though we aren't obligated to help, we'll all still throw the life preserver when and if the time comes!

During the rest of August, the "Common Law" column will address landlord and tenant issues, so be sure to submit any questions, issues, or suggestions regarding this topic.

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