Science Reinforces that the Law Has It Right Regarding Rescue

Absent a scenario in which a person created a hazardous situation or one in which a special relationship exists, the law maintains that there is no duty to rescue another in peril. We recognize that although there may be a moral or ethical duty to rescue, there is generally no legal basis upon which to impose liability.

In an article written by Sheila Eldred, a situation is described in which a NY man, a freelance photographer by trade, was highly scrutinized after supplying to the New York Post photos of a man just seconds before he was run over by a train. The photographer’s response was that all he could do was follow his instincts and that he did not have time to rescue the man. He wrote, “I had no idea what I was shooting. I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening . . . It all went so quickly; from the time I heard the shouting until the time the train hit the man was about 22 seconds.”

Twenty-two seconds? When you think about it, depending on the surrounding environment, that seems like it could be more than enough time to rush in and save someone from certain death. (For perspective, that amount of time is nearly two iterations of the Happy Birthday song). But neuroscience and psychology say “not so fast” when it comes to even the moral/ethical blame. Although we would all like to think we’d be the first to aid in a life-or-death situation, it seems that people have several reasons for failing to rescue another, some of which are deeply rooted in instinct. Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman notes that the pattern of brain activation under conditions like danger is very unique.

Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame Professor of Psychology and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education, has explained that many people are so overcome with shock in these types of situations that they actually cannot save the individual. Instead, these bystanders may default to a learned reaction, which explains the photographer’s “instinct” to snap pictures. (On the other hand, someone who is trained to overcome shock and act affirmatively, like a military service member, may default to his or her training and rush in to rescue the individual).

If there are many bystanders witnessing this type of event taking place, often times no one individual steps forward to save the day. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) we get our social cues from others, and if several people fail to act, we may also fail to act, and (2) the responsibility we feel individually is often inversely proportionate to the number of people present. The article uses the example that if we are in a group of ten people, we may feel that individually, we each only have about 10% of the responsibility. Further, the social practice of walking around a big city with “blinders” may cause people to simply not be aware that someone is in danger, and our sense of compassion for others may be dulled as product of our prevalent violent media.

In my first year torts class, I remember being very surprised to learn that there is generally no legal duty to rescue, and I suppose it’s because it seemed so contrary to public policy in some respects. I understand the reasons why we do not impose a legal duty, and in this instance, the current state of the law is consistent with recent science.


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