The Difference between Moral and Legal Duty Demonstrated: No Duty to Rescue Drowning Man

Seeking rescue.

A few weeks ago, a group of Florida teens saw a disabled man drowning in a local pond. Not only did they fail to take any steps to rescue him or call for help, they instead taunted, mocked, and ridiculed him.  How do we know?  They filmed it and posted it online (warning, it is disturbing to watch and hear)

Here’s a little quiz on your knowledge of our laws in the United States:  What crime can the teens successfully be charged with?

Give up?


And how much can they be sued for?

Give up?


This story demonstrates the difference between moral duty and legal duty.  Moral duty and legal duty intersect but do not overlap. Often you will have both a legal and moral duty to do (or refrain from doing) something: Example, murder. Murder is universally considered both illegal and immoral.  So if you murder someone there are three possible consequences to you: (1) you go to hell; (2) you go to jail, and (3) you get sued for wrongful death by the family.

On the other hand is the act of rescue.  In all of our fifty States, there is generally no duty to rescue anyone, even when doing so would be easy and not put you the rescuer at risk. Example:  You see a blind man crossing a busy street and know he will be struck by the oncoming car.  You decide not to warn him because you think watching him die will be fun.  Bang.

Result?  If there is a hell, you will certainly go there, but there are no consequences on this earth.  You can legally (though not morally) sit back and enjoy the bloody spectacle as it unfolds.  No one can sue you, no one can charge you with a crime.

Back to our Florida story.  Not only won’t these disgusting-excuses-for-human-beings be charged with any crime, they also can’t be sued for money damages by the family of the victim. The teens violated no civil legal duty to the drowning man.  There is no duty to rescue, neither under our criminal nor our civil law.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and maybe it shouldn’t.  Unlike the United States, many countries in Europe (France, Italy, Germany) and Latin America (Argentina, Brazil) do have laws requiring people to render aid or at least summon the authorities. If you don’t at least call the authorities in a timely manner, you could end up in jail.

Not so in the United States.

Legislators in our States have, however, tried to at least encourage rescuing.  Concerned that some would-be rescuers might fear that botched rescue attempts might be grounds for negligence suits against them, all 50 States have passed “good Samaritan Laws”, which bar lawsuits for botched rescues.

In my opinion, this does not go far enough.  At the very least, there should be a duty for a witness to an unfolding tragedy to immediately call the authorities and to take whatever reasonable actions would not put him/herself at any risk.

Keep safe!

Mike Bersani

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Syracuse NY Personal Injury Lawyers
Michaels Bersani Kalabanka


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