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Specific Legal Duties

Courts have developed special rules regarding the duty that a defendant may have in a specific case. Where a duty does exist, it is based on specific circumstances or the nature of the relationship between the parties.

Duty to Rescue

The general rule is that a person has no duty to rescue another person who is in peril. Even in an extreme situation, such as where an adult sees a child trapped on top of railroad tracks, courts generally hold that a person is under no duty to come to the aid of another. Courts, however, recognize several exceptions. These include the following:

  • The Defendant Created the Peril. Where the defendant's negligence created the need for the plaintiff to be rescued, the defendant is generally under a duty to rescue the plaintiff.
  • Undertaking to Act. If a defendant begins to rescue a person but then stops, in some instances the defendant may be under a duty to continue the rescue. Most courts require that the defendant act reasonably once the rescue has begun. If a reasonable person would have continued to rescue the victim, then the defendant may have been under a duty to continue the rescue.
  • Special Relationship. A defendant may have the duty to rescue a person where the defendant has a special relationship with the victim, such as in an employer-employee or a school-student relationship.

Good Samaritan Laws

Statutes that provide immunity from liability for people who assist others are called "Good Samaritan" laws. They are intended to encourage people to help others in need without fear of being sued for injury caused by their help. Still, those whose acts are found to be willfully "wanton" or "reckless" may be held liable. Good Samaritan laws in most states still generally follow the legal rule that passersby do not have a duty to rescue others in need. One exception is Vermont, where citizens are required to help those in need (and can face liability for failing to act).

State Good Samaritan laws differ on whether they protect trained emergency personnel, untrained laypeople, or both. Hawaii's Good Samaritan Act, for example, covers "any person" who "in good faith" renders emergency care.

Duty to Control

A person generally has no duty to control the actions of another person. However, in some relationships, this duty may arise. The most common example involves a parent and child. If a parent is aware of a child's dangerous propensities, then the parent is generally under a duty to exercise reasonable care in controlling the child.

Duty to Protect

A defendant may have a duty to protect a plaintiff based on the defendant's relationship with the plaintiff. This most clearly applies in cases involving jailors and prisoners or innkeepers and guests. Some courts have imposed a duty to protect based on other relationships, including landlord-tenant and business-patron relationships, but the law is less clear about duties in these instances.

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