We've all seen a car accident and wondered whether we should help. These feelings bring up a lot of questions. Will I get in trouble if I do something wrong while trying to help? Do emergency personnel want me to stop and help? In this article, I’ll give you a paramedic's perspective and help you navigate these decisions.
In most cases, following the golden rule will keep you safe: do to others what you'd want them to do for you. There are also laws, such as the Good Samaritan laws, that protect civilians from liability if they stop and help someone in good faith. However, that doesn't mean you can stop and do whatever you want: you still have to use common sense when helping someone in an emergency.
Let's talk about some of the legal implications of helping someone during an emergency, and then we'll answer some general questions about stopping to help people.
Can You Get in Legal Trouble for Administering Medical Aid to Someone in an Emergency?
In most states, Good Samaritan laws are in place to protect people from liability if they stop to help someone in an emergency. Simple, right? Well, any time you see the word "law," "legal," or "court," you can throw the word "simple" as far into outer space as possible.
I'll give you the opinion of a medical professional, but you should NOT take this article as legal advice. This article is merely a commentary on how to be as helpful as possible during an emergency while protecting yourself at the same time.
In general, if you do your best to act in "good faith" (another legal term that is somewhat ambiguous) when helping someone, you shouldn't have any problems. Also, Good Samaritan laws are in place in some areas to protect and sometimes provide immunity for those who call 911 for someone experiencing a drug overdose.
The whole point of Good Samaritan laws is to encourage people to help others without fearing legal repercussions. Of course, that doesn't mean you can act irresponsibly - and in there lies the nuance to this question.
Let's talk about what the Good Samaritan law does NOT protect.
What Does the Good Samaritan Law Not Protect People From?
The Good Samaritan law does not protect "gross negligence," nor does it protect those who intend to do harm. We all know that intentionally hurting someone is bad, and we all know how to avoid it: don't try to hurt people. But what does gross negligence mean? How bad do you have to screw up for that to kick in? It's hard to say.
On a spectrum, you have "good care" on one end, and "intentional harm" on the other end. Somewhere near intentional harm, you have gross negligence, but it's hard to say what that is.
For example, if you don't hold direct pressure on a bleed, is that gross negligence? What about pressure bandages? If you misplace a dressing, is that gross negligence? What if someone places a tourniquet in the wrong spot?
These are all questions that (though I have opinions), I couldn't answer legally. With that said, I do have some tips for trying to stay safe when helping someone (legally, and physically).
How to Help Someone in an Emergency: Best Practices to Keep in Mind
Let's go over a few guidelines to follow during an emergency. However, keep in mind that your area may have different laws and regulations related to how to act during an emergency. Be sure to know your local protocols.
Also, if you are a trained medical provider, there could be different rules about how you should handle yourself.
Here are principles to follow when helping someone in an emergency:
Also, if you have a moment, read this guide on how to move someone in an emergency.
Don't Endanger Yourself
While all of life has dangers, you shouldn't unnecessarily put yourself in danger, even if you're trying to help someone. Too often, you will just get hurt yourself, and now the emergency responders have another person they need to care for.
For example, if you know you don't know how to swim, don't try to swim out into the deep and save someone. Also, consider how your actions might endanger people around you. For example, if you see an accident and stop your car right in the middle of the road, you could cause an accident. It's times like these when you need to use common sense.
Don't Do Anything You're Not Trained to Do (TV Shows Don't Count!)
With the explosion of shows about medical professionals, you've probably seen people perform fake brain surgery on TV. However, this doesn't mean you should try to perform brain surgery on someone in an emergency.
This goes for smaller procedures too. At Medical Gear Outfitters, we strive to train people to carry and use a tourniquet. Tourniquets are a lifesaving piece of gear. However, if you've never used a tourniquet and you don't really know how they work, then trying to use one in an emergency will just prove a waste of your time and potential harm to the patient.
You might even "know that they need a tourniquet," but unfortunately, if you've never learned how to apply one, you aren't going to learn in ten seconds during an emergency. You need to train with tourniquets in advance. Instead, during the emergency, stick with what you know, such as applying direct pressure to the bleed. You will help more people by sticking to what you know, even if you just know primary first aid.
Call 911 Right Away
You should always activate the emergency response system as soon as you know something is wrong. Don't ever be afraid of calling 911 if you're concerned about something. People call 911 for much sillier reasons than you could even imagine.
The sooner you call 911, the sooner the emergency responders will be on the scene to help.
Communicate with Others During an Emergency
If you want to help, be sure to stay calm and talk with others. Is there family around who knows what happened? Did someone already call 911? What is the person complaining about?
Is someone on the scene trained in first aid?
Communication will save you from a lot of headaches. For example, if you want to do something, ask others around you if they agree with the decision. If they don't, give them the chance to explain why. This helps everyone feel involved and may offer protection if something goes wrong.
Finally, if emergency responders are already there, try to be considerate. Ask them if they need any help, or if you're getting in the way. In some cases, paramedics are glad for an extra set of hands - even untrained hands; however, other times medics don't want the extra crowd or distractions.
Do You Have an Obligation to Help?
The next question people ask is this: do I have to help someone in need? For example, if you see someone struggling in the water, do you have to dive in and help? What about a car accident? Are you legally obligated to stop and help?
Let's go over a few times you're usually obligated to help someone.
Here are the times you usually have to help:
Note: I'll say one more time, this article should not be taken as legal advice or council. Reach out to your local governments for guidelines specific to your area.
Final Thoughts: Should You Risk Helping Someone in an Emergency?
Ultimately, the legal stuff can get confusing. I'm not giving you legal advice, but person to person I'd say this: do unto others as you'd have them do to you, don't do anything you're not trained to do, don't endanger yourself or others, do call 911 as quickly as possible, and do get trained (and keep training!).
If you liked this article, you should also check out our guide on how to protect yourself from wildfire smoke.