Specific Legal Duties
Courts have developed special rules regarding the legal duties that people owe to one another in certain situations. Where such a duty does exist, it is usually based on the nature of the relationship between the parties or the specific circumstances of the case.
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 find that a person is under no duty to come to the aid of another. Courts, however, recognize several important exceptions, including the following:
- The Defendant Created the Peril: If 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 a 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 be under a duty to rescue if 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 having to worry about being sued if their help causes injury (or further injury) -- though acts that are found to be willfully "wanton" or "reckless" may not be immune from liability.
Good Samaritan laws in most states still generally follow the legal rule that passersby do not have a duty to rescue others in need. So while you are under no duty to rescue, you are likely protected from liability should you decide to help someone in need. One exception is Vermont, where citizens are required to help those in need (and can face liability for failing to act).
Note that state 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, there are some exceptions. The most common example involves a parent and child. If a parent is aware of a child's dangerous tendencies or habits, 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, although the law is less clear about duties in these instances.
The issue of legal duties most commonly arises in negligence and personal injury cases. For more information on this area of law, feel free to check out FindLaw's section on negligence. If you need more individualized advice or assistance, consider consulting with a personal injury attorney.