THE GOOD SAMARITAN, THE EGG SHELL SKULL RULE AND THE NEIGHBOUR PRINCIPLE
The idea of a person being under an obligation to rescue or render assistance to another person who is injured or in peril has its origins in the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.
In that parable, Jesus answered a lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbour?” by stating that the neighbour was the person who showed mercy to the injured man in the story and that we are morally obliged to do likewise to persons who are in peril or in need of help. However, the Good Samaritan Doctrine takes on a more controversial and complicated meaning when applied in law.
This article elucidates the legal culpability, or the absence of same, of a Good Samaritan in respect of injury done to a person in peril while rendering assistance.
Legal duty vs. Moral obligations
On one hand, many moral principles can be translated into equivalent legal prohibitions. For example, the moral perspectives concerning killing and stealing necessarily translate into equivalent legal prohibitions on homicide and theft. On the other hand, not all moral principles can be translated into legal principles.
The moral doctrine established in the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that in order to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ one must show compassion towards all people. This doctrine places a moral obligation on all persons to help any person who is need of their help. However, the courts have also overtly drawn a distinction between moral obligation and legal duty. In Union Pacific Railway Co. v Cappier , it was stated:
For withholding relief from the suffering, for failure to respond to the calls of worthy charity, or for faltering in the bestowment of brotherly love on the unfortunate, penalties are found not in the laws of men, but in that higher law…
By contrast, many civil law States have imposed legal duties to rescue someone in danger. A positive duty to intervene is included in the legislative codes of Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, etc.
Application of the Good Samaritan Doctrine
Let us assume, for instance, that a person is involved in an accident in a desolate area and has broken a vertebra. The person is unconscious. A passer-by finds him and moves him to safety but in the process, aggravates the spinal injury. In a civil suit by the victim seeking damages for the additional injury, the passer-by may successfully defeat the claims under the Good Samaritan Doctrine.
Also, if the passer-by decides to stand idly and refrain from rendering assistance to the victim, no matter how cold-blooded and repulsive it appears, there are no legal repercussions for such immoral conduct.
The Good Samaritan Doctrine is used by rescuers to avoid civil liability for injuries arising from their negligence. Its purpose is to encourage emergency assistance by removing the threat of liability for damage done by their assistance.
However, the assistance must be reasonable; a Good Samaritan does not come under the protection of the doctrine if the assistance is reckless or grossly negligent.
The Good Samaritan and the Egg Shell Skull Rule
The “eggshell skull” rule states that someone who harms another must pay for whatever damage the injured person suffered, even if it was much worse than anyone would have expected.
This rule is named after the example frequently used in law schools. The example describes an imaginary person who has an extremely thin skull that is as fragile as an eggshell, even though he looks completely normal.
It goes further to describe this person being hit in the head by someone else. A normal person will only be bruised by the hit, but the person with the eggshell skull sustains a more grievous injury.
The “eggshell skull” rule says that the person who hit the eggshell-skulled person is responsible for the much greater harm caused by the hit, not just the amount of harm that a normal person would have suffered.
Although the law does not impose a duty on a passer-by, where such a passer-by decides to render help, he must do so with all due care as may be expected of a reasonable and prudent man acting in similar circumstances.
In applying the eggshell skull rule to the doctrine of the Good Samaritan, a passer-by who volunteers help may be liable where injury arises from his negligent acts or omission while rendering such assistance for “…one who assumes to act, even though gratuitously, may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully, if he acts at all.”
Thus, a victim whose condition was worsened by the person who came to his aid would have remedy for negligence under the eggshell skull rule. It follows that a Good Samaritan must be careful to leave a victim as he met him and not worse.
Zachaeus Olamide Akanni
Watch out for THE GOOD SAMARITAN, THE EGG SHELL AND THE NEIGHBOUR PRINCIPLE (PART 2)
Zacheaus Olamide Akanni is a Litigation and Maritime & Admiralty Law enthusiast. He holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) Degree from the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Oyo State, where he was awarded Second Class Honours (Upper Division). He is an aspirant to the Nigerian Bar at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos Campus.