DennisBeaverDecember 8, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Greetings from Stockholm, Sweden, Mr. Beaver. I am an exchange student from California spending one year in a wonderful high school here in snowy Sweden. My family
e-mailed your story of the Coco’s restaurant that refused to let a waitress off for a few days when her husband was on leave from Iraq and management blamed the waitress when she quit her job. Well, there is something similar going on here, making the newspapers and TV, and I need your opinion about the legal duty in America of going to the aid of a person who is in an accident, or the victim of violent crime.

Here is the story:

A bus driver, reaching the final stop and letting his passengers off, heard a noise — it was a fight next to his bus, in which a man was being severely beaten and kicked in the head by several youths. The driver quickly locked the bus and tried to stop the fight. He was also beaten up, but successfully ended the fight, and the attackers left. The bus driver was credited with saving a life. Amazingly, instead of praise, his employer claimed the driver violated the company’s security measures and threatened him with being fired!

Their policy required drivers to remain in the bus and call police. But the driver said he felt a moral duty to help this person who could have been killed, and that had he remained in the bus, it would have been completely immoral.

I learned that in neutral Sweden you can just stand around and watch someone be killed and have no legal duty to act. Well, in class we had a discussion about the poor bus driver, and I said this could never happen in the USA, as we aren’t cowards and must help someone in danger. But my teacher said that I was wrong, that there is no such law in America. That is why I am writing you.
— Thanks, Carol

What really happened?

I researched the story, and found that accounts in Swedish newspapers, TV and radio revealed a management that was more concerned with “policy,” than common sense or basic morality. This, “follow orders” attitude was reinforced in a discussion I had with the Public Relations Officer of UK based Arriva, Corporation. I sent them an e-mail asking for their version of what happened — something basic fairness in journalism requires.

While expecting an e-mail reply, I was startled — I mean really startled — at 1:30 in the morning, when my home phone rang.
“Hallo, this is Morten Starup, Public Relations manager with Arriva, calling you from Denmark. Hallo? Hallo? Did I wake you? What time is it?”

When groggy me replied, “Only 1:30 in the morning,” Morten apologized, but we did have a nice and lengthy discussion.
“Our driver violated company policy several times in the past, this time by leaving the bus without notifying management or the police and placed passengers at risk. While he did get a written warning, we never really considered firing him,” he explained. However, according to witnesses, there were no passengers present and delay could have meant a young man might be killed, but Morten still felt that their policy should have been followed. This would have made for a nice, new slogan for Arriva buses, “Take the Bus, Leave the Beating to Us!”

“Do we or do we not have the moral courage to act when someone is in danger?” was the refrain from Swedish political leaders. They asked that question because unlike most of Western Europe, in Sweden, there is no duty to become involved. “It is a country where they do not like to commit themselves, to stick their necks out in the defense of anyone,” is the way one high school principal phrased it. (He is British, married to a Swedish woman, and after nearly 30 years there, “still, can’t understand how they became so uninvolved and fence-sitters.”

In this part of Scandinavia, a truly lovely land with nice people who are mostly pacifists, you can indeed stand on the sidelines, observe violent crime, and even without risk to yourself, do nothing.

But before we become too smug, the sad news is that it is no different in the United States.

The American view of a duty to act

We Americans are at times a difficult to understand people. While we defended the world from oppression in the two World Wars of the last century, at home things are very different.

As Janice Pearson, Dean and Professor of Law at San Joaquin College of Law in Fresno observes, “In most U.S. states, there is no duty to go to the aid of a person in peril, unless we have somehow contributed to their danger, or have some other legally recognized duty requiring action. In your example, if the fight took place on board the bus, the driver would have legally been obligated to become involved. As to something completely outside of the bus and unconnected with it, there is no legal duty. He could have locked the doors and waited for the danger to pass, even if an innocent person was killed.”

“Sadly, these things happen all the time, and are morally unacceptable, but not usually a violation of the law,” Dean Pearson said. “Fortunately, we have Good Samaritan Laws which encourage becoming involved, but it is an area of our legal system that many feel needs to change,” she believes.

This freewill philosophy of ours is part of who we are as a people –no one is going to tell us what to do. We are required to act if there is a duty — if we have a special relationship. However, there is no duty to come to the aid of a stranger unless we are somehow to blame for that person’s imminent danger. If not, as so many cases of street violence reveal, far too many of us stand by and do nothing.

To many, this is pure hypocrisy, and may violate religious teachings, but for the majority of jurisdictions, that’s the law. But there are people in our country who refuse to remain silent, and choose to become involved. We call them police, fire fighters, and yes, even lawyers.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.