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Good Samaritans, Be Wary?

Good Samaritans, Be Wary?

A few months ago, I was walking through the Costco parking lot when I saw an elderly and somewhat frail couple trying to load two gigantic bags of pet food into the back of their car. They were clearly having trouble, so I headed over and helped them out. What’s remarkable about this is their utter surprise that anyone would give them a hand. They were almost suspicious of my help, like I was either going to ask for payment or rob them when I was done. And I found that to be really, really sad.

Now I’ve never pulled anyone out of a wrecked car, but when I read a story about the California Supreme Court allowing good Samaritans to be sued, it reminded me of this incident and others like it–times when I went out of my way to lend a helping hand to a complete stranger.

Another time, when my husband and I were at a gas station there was this woman who was clearly flummoxed at the lack of a full-service pump. Maybe she was from Oregon, where you aren’t allowed to pump your own gas. She actually seemed pretty disoriented in general, so who knows what the deal was. In any case, she gave me her credit card and I swiped it for her then my husband pumped her gas and we all went on our merry way.

When I mentioned this to someone at work, they were shocked that we would do that. The woman could have screamed “THIEF!” when I took her credit card. My husband could have put the wrong kind of gas in her tank and her engine would be ruined. We could have been arrested, or worse–sued.

Being sued for doing something nice for someone else? Sounds ridiculous to me. But the case that resulted in the court decision that people can be sued for their charitable actions was one in which a woman pulled a crash victim from a car “like a rag doll,” allegedly aggravating a vertebrae injury. Apparently the Good Samaritan law only protects those providing medical care. Everyone else is fair game. This would-be Good Samaritan thought the car was going to ignite, or possibly explode, and she did what she thought she needed to do. I’d like to think that anyone else would have done the same.

I feel sorry for the crash victim, sure, and I also feel sorry for the woman who just thought she was helping. But mostly I feel sorry for a society in which people are encouraged to stand idly by while someone is in danger. Is that really what we’ve come to?

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Jana Ballinger

Jana Ballinger has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and copy editor for daily newspapers. She lives in a vintage house in Northern California with her husband and an orange cat.


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7:31AM PDT on Aug 15, 2012

I'm in Oz so generally this is thankfully not the norm. I do hope it remains that way.

7:02PM PDT on Aug 22, 2011

Hi Karen, OMG, that's awful. I know what you mean, I am currently editing the first aid manual for trainers in Canada. Everyone who is not a first aid attendant should make sure the scene is safe, call 911 but stay away from interfering/moving the patient.

12:15PM PDT on Aug 22, 2011

As a paramedic working in a rural setting, I responded to an accident on the Interstate where a car had rolled (apparently end over end) and come to rest on the passenger side. There was one person inside. On our arrival, 4 men walked up to us and bragged about how they had called in the accident then set the car back on its wheels and the driver was still inside. They told us how the driver was yelling and waving his arms when they came up to the car. "Well, now he is unable to move at all and is barely breathing," I shouted. A highway patrol officer heard me yell at the 4 guys and escorted the men toward his vehicle. I didn't see what happened to them because I was too busy tending to the injured driver, who obviously had a broken neck, 2 fractured femurs, and other lesser injuries. We ended up having to bag (breathe for him) until the med chopper arrived to fly him to a trauma center. Later, I learned the man's spinal cord was severed at C2: he will be a breathing-assisted quad for the remainder of his life, thanks to 4 "good(?) samaritans." So if you must mess with a serious situation, PLEASE THINK FIRST.

7:29AM PDT on Apr 25, 2011

Your last paragraph said it all, Jana, I too, feel very sorry for this society, that has become so fearful and insular that we are afraid to do something kind for another person. It's not only very sad, but it is also destructive to the very fabric of a society.

6:40AM PDT on Apr 7, 2011

Thanks for the article.

12:21PM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

It is well established tort law that, any time one undertakes to perform a service or any other act, that he/she must do so non-negligently. If the act is found to have been done negligently - and particularly, if injury or damage results - then, the person acting may well be liable for those injuries or damages. That does not stop me, however, from offering assistance to anyone I see, who appears to need help.

I have had the very same experience in parking lots, which the writer described in this article. I have, too, often wondered why it should be such an anomaly to help another person. Strangers often do appear to be VERY suspicious when an offer of help is made. That says some very unflattering things about out society.

9:09AM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

Humanity, always living down to my expectations. It's things like this that make me question if civilization is still actually "civilized" anymore?

5:30PM PDT on Aug 2, 2010

This is really a terrible statement
about our society. terrible that
there a lawyers who encourage suits.
Awful that there are people who make
money this way.

3:26PM PDT on Aug 2, 2010

very sad

9:28AM PDT on Apr 6, 2010

My understanding is that people can be sued either for helping or not. We just can't win and yes it is sad that we can't help each other anymore.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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