Kordel Davis, a member of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State University, says he told his fraternity brothers to call 911 after noticing a 19-year-old pledge who had been drinking tumble down the stairs, then end up comatose on a couch.
Nobody called for 40 minutes, and the young man, Timothy Piazza, was later pronounced dead.
Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah, says Mr. Davis should have done more than just urge someone else to call for help. Mr. Guiora is leading a push to impose a duty on bystanders to take affirmative action to assist those they see in peril.
“He said to the other brothers, ‘We need to call 911,’” said Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah. “He went to another room. He’s absolutely a bystander.”
Mr. Guiora’s interest stems from his own family history. Both of his parents survived the Holocaust, with his mother in hiding and his father surviving a death march — but their son says the tragedy could have been lessened if bystanders had an obligation to help.
“Bystander non-intervention facilitates — enables — the action of the perpetrator,” said Mr. Guiora.
Lawyers, judges and lawmakers have long grappled with what sorts of legal obligations citizens have to others they come in contact with, particularly when it comes to helping out in times of need.
“I think the professor in Utah is on to something where we see lots and lots of cases where law and morality come apart,” said Jesse Kirkpatrick, a philosophy professor at George Mason University.
Douglas Kysar, a law professor at Yale, said the majority of states have some type of good Samaritan law protecting those that do intervene from liability should something go wrong, hoping to entice people to step up when they see someone in trouble.
For example, if someone gave a person who was choking the Heimlich maneuver, but then accidentally broke a rib, the individual who rendered the aid could escape legal liability for the injury under a good Samaritan law.
On Thursday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill to enact a “good Samaritan” law in that state to prevent civil liability against someone who breaks a car window to rescue a child or a pet inside a hot car after alerting emergency officials.
“My essence is the people in the moment of crisis, their actions are not at all driven by what they think the legal consequences will be,” said Mr. Kysar.
But Mr. Guiora is part of a movement that thinks the law should do more than entice good behavior.
“All I want you to do is say, ‘There’s a person in peril or a person in distress,’” Mr. Guiora said.
He suggests a monetary fine for people who don’t call for assistance — not necessarily jail time.
Mr. Guiora said the possibility of law enforcement being flooded with phone calls could occur, but the cost-benefit analysis of helping save a life is more important.
Mr. Guiora doesn’t think there should be mandatory physical intervention to render aid to another who is in need, because it could open the door for other injuries if the help is done negligently. As a result, the person who may have rendered aid in good-faith could be held liable for recklessness or causing an injury.
Vermont is one of the few states that does have a law enshrining an affirmative duty to assist someone in need. Those who break the law face a maximum fine of $100.
“Prosecutors rarely if ever actually prosecute persons for these crimes,” said John Goldberg, a law professor at Harvard University.
Mr. Goldberg said there’s a difference between pressing someone to alert authorities if they see a person being beaten from a distance and demanding they step forward to try to stop murder by agents of a genocidal government.
Under the bystander rule, there’s no legal obligation to rescue someone even when the inconvenience to do so may be minor, for example, dipping your arm into a pool to rescue a drowning baby.
But according to Mr. Kirkpatrick, that’s substantially different than someone who can’t swim, trying to jump into a body of water to swim out and rescue someone in peril.
“We have a moral obligation to intervene up to a point, but I think it’s about line drawing,” he said. “The bystander rule, as written, doesn’t have that wiggle room that we want.”
• Alex Swoyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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