It may be reprehensible and morally outrageous, but legal experts say a group of Florida teens had no obligation to rescue a drowning disabled man they instead mocked, laughed at and recorded on a video that was later posted online. Still, authorities are pursuing possible misdemeanor charges against them for failing to report a death.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a 2012 legal argument, summarized that across the U.S. there’s no general duty to render aid to someone in distress. “You don’t have the duty to rescue someone if that person is in danger. The blind man is walking in front of a car and you do not have a duty to stop him absent some relation between you,” Kennedy said in arguments on the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”
Kennedy added that there are “some severe moral criticisms of that rule, but that’s generally the rule.”
The case in central Florida’s Brevard County involves the July 9 drowning of Jamel Dunn, 31, in a retention pond. Police in the city of Cocoa discovered later that five teenagers, ages 14 to 16, had made a video of the drowning, which was published Friday by Florida Today. The teens can be heard laughing at Dunn, telling him he’s going die and that they weren’t going to help him as he struggled and screamed.
Police identified and interviewed the five teens involved. The office of State Attorney Phil Archer initially determined there was no immediate indication that a crime was committed because state law does not require people to give or call for help when someone is in distress. But later, after the story drew widespread attention online, officials said they were pursuing misdemeanor charges of failure to report a death against the teenagers.
“While this in no way will bring justice for what occurred, it is a start,” Cocoa Mayor Henry Parrish III said. “I know that everyone working on this investigation has been tireless in their efforts to find answers. Everyone has been affected by what we have seen.”
Many countries, including Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, do have laws requiring people to render aid, even if it means only summoning authorities. And violations in some countries can result in prison time.
But Florida’s law is hardly unique across the U.S., legal experts said.
“Generally, throughout the U.S., there is no duty to rescue,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. Still, he added: “It seems like common sense that those kids should have tried to help the guy instead of filming it.”
There are some differences in various states, but Weinstein said exceptions typically include required assistance in car crashes; for people in special relationships with others such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, married couples, common carriers such as bus drivers and employers; and if you yourself put the other person in danger in the first place.
Some states, such as Nebraska, require most people – especially professionals – to report suspected child abuse or face possible misdemeanor charges, said attorney Jeffrey Lapin in Lincoln, Nebraska. He agreed the Florida teenagers committed no crime.
“While it is morally and ethically wrong, it is not illegal to not render aid or make extremely despicable comments,” Lapin said in an email Friday.
The Cocoa mayor, Parrish, was even more blunt: “Never in my life would I have ever thought we would need a law to make this happen,” he said.
Lapin noted that in the final episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld,” the four main characters are convicted of violating a purported city ordinance by failing to assist an overweight man who is getting carjacked – instead joking about the man’s large size and doing nothing. The judge character said the four had “callous indifference and utter disregard” for a positive society.
Most U.S. states have no such laws.
There are situations in which U.S. law does require assistance to be rendered. One of those is on the high seas, where federal law requires the “master” of any vessel under U.S. jurisdiction to help anyone “found at sea in danger of being lost,” according to the statute. A 1989 international treaty extends that obligation to mariners around the world.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia also have “Good Samaritan” laws aimed at protecting people from being sued for anything they did while rendering aid or attempting to rescue someone in danger. There are exceptions to those laws as well.