The Purpose of Good Samaritan Laws


Famously spoofed on the last-ever episode of "Seinfeld," so-called good Samaritan laws are intended to encourage bystanders to come to the aid of anyone in distress, with legislation in effect to protect the assisting party from any legal liability related to the assistance provided.


  • Good Samaritan laws are named for the famed New Testament parable in Luke 10:25-37, in which a traveler helps a stranger who has been robbed and beaten by thieves, despite the difference in their ethnicity. According to "West's Encyclopedia of American Law," Good Samaritan laws provide "that a person who sees another individual in imminent and serious danger or peril cannot be charged with negligence if that first person attempts to aid or rescue the injured party, provided the attempt is not made recklessly." The purpose, says the encyclopedia, "is to encourage emergency assistance by removing the threat of liability for damage done by the assistance."


  • In 1964, New Yorker Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death while bystanders did nothing to prevent her murder. The reason for the bystanders' inaction was attributed to their fear of becoming victims themselves and of facing potential legal liabilities if their well-intentioned actions resulted in a negative outcome. Not only did this incident prompt psychological research into the so-called "bystander effect," but also opened public debate that eventually led to good Samaritan legislation. In the U.S., each state has some form of good Samaritan law, although these vary from state to state. Canada and France are among the countries that have adopted good Samaritan laws.


  • Countries that operate under a form of English Common Law already have some form of good Samaritan law, typically part of the legal system's "rescue-to-duty" laws. The purpose of good Samaritan laws are to to provide legal protection for those who attempt to assist others who are sick, injured or in need of some form of help, with the intention of reducing a potential rescuer's hesitation to act due to fear of being sued for his actions. Because those who have a duty to act (such as police officers or medical workers) already have legal protection, they are typically not protected by good Samaritan laws.

Harsher Laws

  • In the 1998 "Seinfeld" finale, Jerry and his friends were sent to prison for their failure to assist a stranger who was being robbed while they stood nearby and videotaped the act. Although this is not an accurate reflection of the existing good Samaritan laws, in early 2011 Swedish legislators examined the feasibility of a law similar to that depicted in "Seinfeld." In a report presented to the Swedish government, legislators recommended that a so-called "civil courage" law penalize anyone who passively stands by in a dangerous situation without offering assistance be fined or face up to two years in jail. One legislator, however, advised against introducing this law: Swedish legislator Olle Abrahamsson pointed to statistics in the United States indicating that more people are killed while helping out those in need than are actually saved.


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