The Good Samaritan Doctrine in Maritime Law

The Good Samaritan.  We know him as the traveler who, for no other reason than a desire to help a fellow human being, stopped on the road to Jericho to help a man who had been beaten and bloodied by robbers.  The Samaritan was not forced to stop and help, and was not bound by any law to stop and help.  But, where others had passed and ignored the battered and helpless victim, the Samaritan stopped, bandaged his wounds, and took him to an inn to recover.  It was a gratuitous act for which the Samaritan sought no reward and by his actions the man was saved.

The lesson of the Good Samaritan has survived the centuries and serves as a model of moral behavior to this day.  What different lesson might have been passed down to us had the hapless victim, after being care for by the Samaritan, died and his surviving wife and children sought recompense from the Samaritan for not doing more to save his life, or for having done something that worsened his condition, thus resulting in his death?

Unfortunately, such scenarios do play out in today’s society, and the courts have been forced to deal with them.  This has required the courts to create that rule known in the law as the Good Samaritan Doctrine.  Simply stated, the Good Samaritan Doctrine makes one person liable to another for breach of a duty voluntarily assumed by affirmative conduct, even when that assumption of duty is gratuitous.

The maritime tort law has come to recognize the doctrine, and is applied by courts in cases of purely maritime flavor.  Courts sitting in admiralty have cited the Restatement (Second) of Torts which provides in part, “One who undertakes gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm or harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.”

Thus, the Good Samaritan can be held liable for damages if the judge or jury finds that despite his best intentions he failed to exercise reasonable care and said failure exacerbated the situation and resulted in harm.  As a consequence, the Good Samaritan Doctrine does not stand for the proposition that actions motivated by the most elemental desire by one person to help another should be applauded, no matter the outcome.  Instead, the parable of the Good Samaritan has been twisted to stand for the proposition that once you stop to help someone, you better get it right or there’s a good chance you will be sued if something goes wrong.

To be held liable to a person for damages alleged to be the result of his gratuitous acts, the “victim” must prove that the Good Samaritan acted and assumed a duty or undertook to render services to him and, then, was negligent in carrying out that undertaking, i.e., did the Samaritan’s failure to exercise reasonable care increase the risk of physical harm or damage to property?

In the world of maritime commerce there are situations in which the duty to assist is mandated by the law.  Title 46, USC 2303, 2304 and 2306 require, in certain circumstances, that the master of a vessel provide assistance to save lives and property or risk fines or imprisonment.  However, for the most part, the acts of a Good Samaritan are not compelled by the rules of law, but by the rules of man.  Today, unfortunately, courts are not concerned not the motive of the Samaritan, but the consequences of his actions.

To this writer the doctrine has become distorted, and the lesson being taught today is the opposite of that taught in the original parable.  Now, if the Good Samaritan intervenes to provide assistance and the “victim” is not pleased with the outcome, there is a good chance the Good Samaritan will end up in court having to prove he acted appropriately.  Such a threat places a chill on anyone’s impulse to help another because the potential Good Samaritan is now forced to consider the consequences of his desire to help.