Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Spring 2011
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 22B

Philosophy of Law

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

The Death of Princess Diana

But now consider the following, more recent occurrence:

Princess Diana's Car Crash and the Photographers: On August 30, 1997, Princess Diana's speeding Mercedes-Benz crashed in France, killing her and critically injuring other passengers in the car. Before medical help arrived for the Princess and her companions, photographers who had arrived at the scene allegedly snapped photographs of her body instead of assisting her and the others trapped in the car. As a result, the seven photographers were investigated for possibly violating, among other things, France's "Good-Samaritan" law, which requires that onlookers lend aid to victims in peril.


Princess Di Stories and Photos:


Of course, the French have a peculiar way of looking at the world, a way that is typically French. That there is such a "duty to rescue" law in France but not in New York may simply reflect a difference between French and American culture. But it turns out France is not alone in this regard. All the European countries have "duty to rescue" laws, including Rumania, Poland, and Russia as well as Turkey. So, while it is true in this country, i.e., with us, that all of us are under a general legal duty to refrain from inflicting harm on others, we are not under any similar general legal duty, or so it would appear, to prevent harm from befalling another. The American law is dramatically expressed in the language of an opinion from the end of the nineteenth century:

Buch v. Amory (1897): Suppose A, standing close by a railroad, sees a two year old baby on the track and a [train] approaching. He can easily rescue the child with entire safety to himself, and the instincts of humanity require him to do so. If he does not, he may, perhaps, justly be styled a ruthless savage and a moral monster, but he's not liable in damages for the child's injury, or indictable under the statute for its death . . . There is a wide difference - a broad gulf - both in reason and in law, between causing and preventing an injury; between doing by negligence or otherwise a wrong to one's neighbor, and preventing him from injuring himself; . . . The duty to do no wrong is a legal duty. The duty to protect against wrong is, generally speaking and excepting certain intimate relations in the nature of a trust, a moral obligation only, not recognized or enforced by law.

Kitty Genovese

But we have come a long way since these words were written by the Judge in Buch v.Amory (1897). The general American rule that there is no legal duty to rescue another in danger, even though a moral obligation may exist has been eroded by several clear exceptions. Personal relationships, such as the relationship of parent and child have created legal duties in the parent such that a parent who fails to feed their own child, a parent who simply omits meals from the child's day-to-day activities, is criminally liable to that child for any injury, fatal or otherwise, the child may suffer from the parent's failure to act. So, too, courts have concluded that someone may be held criminally liable for an injury that occurs to a person whom the defendant had begun to rescue, but then abandoned that person in, let's say, mid-rescue. So, for an example, consider the following:

John, the Designated Driver: Henry calls John from a bar where he (Henry) has been drinking heavily for much of the night. It is almost closing time and Henry asks if he (John) will come, pick him up and drive him home. Henry realizes he is too drunk to drive himself home. John agrees. On the way to Henry's house they have an argument and John tells Henry to get out of the car. He has stopped on a very dark stretch of road next to a pond. Henry gets out; John drives off; and Henry wanders drunkenly into the pond and drowns. Henry's parents sue John, claiming that he had a duty to look out for Henry once he picked him up and that he should not have abandoned him on the way home. Did John's failure to come to Henry's aid make John in some way criminally liable for Henry's death? blockquote>

Most states would say "yes." But what is the reasoning here? And why have the courts thought that persons in situations such as the one in which John found himself with Henry have a duty to rescue? You may wish to look at a number of "duty to rescue" cases on the Philosophy of Law Case Website (2011) for the current state of thinking about these cases in the absence of a specific "duty to rescue" statute requiring citizens of a given state to look out, in some minimal fashion, for their neighbors. Here I am thinking, in particular, of the cases of McFall v. Shimp (1978); Yania v. Bigan (1959), Depue v. Flateau (1907) and People v. Beardsley (1907)