When Do You Have A Legal Duty Assist Others?

The Des Moines Register recently ran a story on Chad Naumann, who died on the floor of an Urbandale hotel room after consuming a mixture of drugs and alcohol.  The story was about the fact that other people were in that hotel room and basically allowed Chad to die.  In fact, witnesses told police that the man who lived in that hotel room actually instructed that no one should call 911.  Here’s a link to the story:

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20120122/NEWS/301220045/Rood-Chad-Nauman-lay-dying-no-one-helped-him

The general rule under Iowa’s civil law is that there is no duty to render aid to another, no matter how helpless or endangered that person might be.  But in limited circumstances negligence law imposes a duty to assist another, for example, after a motorcycle crash, dog attack or a car accident.  Those circumstances usually involve some action on your part towards the endangered person, like creating the dangerous situation or condition or inadequately rendering or discontinuing aid once you’ve voluntarily begun to help.  Failure to render aid when legally required to do so can lead to liability for personal injuries or wrongful death.  Most of the time though, if you’re not a cause of the person’s trouble and take no steps to help that person, you owe them nothing and can leave them to fend for themselves.

The Iowa Supreme Court extensively discussed this exact question in the 2000 case of Garofalo v. Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity.  That lawsuit involved a fraternity member, Matt Garofalo, at the University of Iowa who died after excessive alcohol consumption.  Garofalo’s family sued the fraternity organization and the students the family believed allowed their son to die.

The trial dismissed most of the defendants because it determined that none of them had an obligation to protect Garofalo.  Some of the students were accused of failing to care for Garofalo once he became intoxicated, helpless, and unable to adequately protect himself, especially after he was unconscious and lying on a couch.

In concluding that the other students, with the exception of one, owed Garofalo no duty of care, the Iowa Supreme Court stated that there is no general duty to take charge of persons who are helpless and cannot adequately aid or protect themselves.  In other words, the students who did not contribute to Garofalo’s intoxicated condition, did not make his situation any worse, and did nothing to try to care for him were not legally obligated to assist him in any manner.  But once aid is attempted, even if you have no initial duty to assist, you have to use reasonable care for the safety of the other person and cannot discontinue the aid or protection if it will leave the other person in a worse position than when you began to help.

So if you come upon a car crash and see bodies lying on the side of the road, you have no obligation to stop and help and can just keep on going.  But if you do stop to lend assistance, you’ve assumed a duty to help and protect those people lying on the side of the road.  Now, once you’ve stopped and tried to help, that implicates another legal doctrine, the “good samaritan” law, that provides protection for injuries you cause while trying to render aid, for example while performing CPR.  I’ll discuss that topic another time.

Interestingly, the trial court in the Garofalo case did not dismiss a claim against a student, Chad Diehl, for failing to help.  Diehl furnished alcohol to Garofalo in violation of state law (Garofalo was underage) and there were questions about Diehl’s conduct once Garofalo became intoxicated and passed out.  Diehl did the most to check on and monitor Garfalo.  By doing so, he arguably “took charge” of Garofalo and assumed responsibility for Garofalo’s safety.  Diehl also contributed to Garfalo’s dangerous situation by illegally giving him alcohol.  For those reasons the trial court ruled that the jury would have to decide whether Diehl was negligent in his care of Garofalo.

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