Ten years ago, I witnessed a bar brawl that seemed straight out of a movie – except I was there, front and center, as another patron was hit on the forehead with a heavy glass. The crowd of onlookers grew as the egg on his head swelled and the assailant was subdued.
Then my natural instinct to help kicked in. Did he know where he was? Who was the president of the United States? How many fingers was I holding up? I wanted to give him some ice for his head as he lay bleeding, but my friend (the bar’s owner) warned me against doing so. There were cameras everywhere in the bar, he told me; I could get in trouble for helping, and so could he. It was best just to stay out of it and wait for the ambulance to arrive.
This never seemed right to me. Could I get in trouble for being a Good Samaritan? Could my friend be held liable for the injury if someone had stepped in to help between the time when the man was hit and the arrival of the ambulance? As Slate’s Molly Colin writes, similar questions arose recently when an emergency dispatcher in Bakersfield, Calif., frantically urged a caller to administer CPR to an 87-year-old nursing home resident who had stopped breathing. But the caller, a nurse at the home, refused to act because of the facility’s rule prohibiting staff from administering CPR. By the time emergency responders arrived, the woman had no pulse and, soon after, died at a nearby hospital. The incident has prompted California law enforcement to take a close look at the legal and ethical implications of such a policy.
This incident also shed light on the disturbing fact that if you plan to be a helpful bystander, you should be well aware of your state’s rules for doing so. There is no federal law governing the issue, though the 2000 Federal Cardiac Arrest Survival Act provides immunity from civil damages to people administering CPR or using an automatic external defibrillation; but most states have some kind of protection for Good Samaritans – though they vary state to state.
But as the Slate story points out, fear of legal consequences is only one reason that would-be Good Samaritans stay out of medical situations. The article cites a series of surveys conducted by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 1996 that found that the top reasons bystanders walk away from the opportunity to perform CPR included fear of getting mugged, fear that they will hurt themselves bending over, concern that they will injure the victim by applying chest compression too heavily, fear of contracting an infectious disease and fear of being sued.
However, despite people’s misgivings about helping someone in need, the American Heart Association claims that by providing CPR immediately after a sudden cardiac arrest, a bystander can double or triple the victim’s chance of survival.
In any case – be it cardiac arrest or another emergency – what is your first instinct? Should you be more concerned about possible legal ramifications, or is the responsible thing to jump right in and try to help? Weigh in here.