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Does a Bystander Have to Help Someone in Distress?


Often, laws and morals collide, where one says to do one thing, and the other says to do something different. One such area is with the obligation of bystanders to help an accident victim. While ethics or morals may say that you, as a bystander or an observer or someone in peril, should have to come to that person’s aid, the law generally says differently.

Good Samaritan Laws

There is no law in Tennessee that obligates anyone to come to another’s aid. The best the law does is encourage bystanders to help by providing those who help with some immunity from being sued. The immunity or safety applies both to laypeople, as well as trained medical professionals administering medical care on an emergency basis (think of a doctor that races to the scene of a car accident to help someone). This is called a “good Samaritan law.”

The Samaritan law says that if you do assist someone in distress, you cannot be sued for any injuries that you may cause in the course of your assistance. This is assuming that you are helping the person in good faith—that is, you have no ulterior motive, like an expectation of payment, and that you aren’t acting completely recklessly or carelessly in such a way that you cause even more harm to the victim. The immunity or safety ends when the emergency that the good Samaritan is tending to ends.


The law applies to your use of defibrillators or other on site medical devices, which are normally provided to the public to provide aid. However, a business that has a defibrillator is liable if they fail to provide training to employees on how to use the defibrillator and injury results from the device’s misuse.

Failing to Render Aid

All this immunity for those who help is great-but what about being liable for simply not helping at all? As a general rule, there is no legal obligation to help someone in distress, and you cannot sue someone who fails to help. There are, however, exceptions to this general immunity:

  1. There is a special relationship between the parties – Someone in a nursing home would have an obligation to come to the aid of a resident in distress. A teacher at a daycare would have to assist a child. A police officer would have to help someone in distress. All of these categories have a “special relationship” to the victim.
  2. Finishing the job – If you undertake to help someone, you need to finish the job. You couldn’t try to rescue someone from drowning, and then stop when you decide it’s too difficult. Once you start, you must make a reasonable attempt to complete the task.

Call the Knoxville personal injury attorneys at Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today if you have suffered any type of injury.



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