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It is one of the best-known stories in the Bible. Three travelers, one a priest, the second a Levite, and the third a Samaritan encounter a robbery victim who has been left for dead in the road. Only the Samaritan offers aid without regard to the possible negative consequences. Had the incident taken place in the present day, one of the concerns shared by the travelers would certainly be a possible legal liability to the victim or his family should the victim die or be permanently harmed.

Every state and the District of Columbia have so-called “Good Samaritan” laws. Although their provisions vary, all provide some degree of protection from civil liability to persons who voluntarily render aid in an emergency, even if the outcome is tragic. California’s version, found in the Health and Safety Code, generally protects persons who, without compensation, attempt to render emergency assistance, unless their actions are grossly negligent, willful or wanton. Instances of such conduct are rare, and few persons who act in good faith need to be concerned about them.

Protection From Criminal Responsibility    

Why are we discussing “Good Samaritan” laws in a criminal law blog? The answer lies in both a February 2017 tragedy at a Pennsylvania university and the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis.

During a night of binge drinking at a Pennsylvania State University fraternity, freshman Timothy Piazza was so intoxicated that he fell on at least two occasions, suffering what turned out to be fatal head injuries. While nobody can say for sure that prompt medical attention could have saved Timothy’s life, there’s no question it wasn’t forthcoming. Only the fraternity members who saw him in distress but failed to call 911 until the next day know why they didn’t, but the fear of possible criminal liability for allowing underage drinking in the frat house may well have played a part.

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control statistics, in 2015 more than 4,600 Californians died from drug overdoses. While the CDC does not track deaths attributable to specific drugs, a large percentage of the victims overdosed on a substance in the so-called “opioid” family. These are drugs that, while free of opium, produce the same effects and are equally addictive. Death from an opioid overdose can often be prevented, but only if assistance is rendered quickly.

Naturally, possession of opioids without a valid prescription is a violation of California’s criminal laws. While precise numbers are not available, anecdotal evidence indicates that an at least some overdose deaths occurred because either the victim or persons with him or he feared arrest if they called the authorities.

In an effort to save more overdose victims, in 2012 the California legislature joined a number of states that have passed so-called “911 Good Samaritan Laws”. California’s version states that no criminal charges related to possession or use of illegal drugs may be brought if the user or a third person in good faith seek medical attention in the event of an overdose. The statute provides no immunity against prosecution for sale, provision or forcible administration of drugs or for any other crimes (for example, an assault or burglary) committed by the overdose victim or his or her companions.

Do 911 Good Samaritan Laws Work?

The jury, as they say, is still out. Research into the effectiveness of 911 Good Samaritan laws remains limited. However, Washington State adopted a 911 law in 2010, and a preliminary study by the University of Washington found that while actual incidents of bystander arrest are uncommon, many addicts nevertheless fear prosecution if found at the scene of an overdose. As such, the researchers found that most drug users interviewed agreed the 911 law makes them more likely to summon help.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong

Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm, the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, in June 2007. Prior to that, he was employed as the senior associate attorney for a large criminal defense firm in San Diego for nine years, eventually being placed in charge of that firm’s branch office in downtown San Diego. At one point, he was managing six attorneys at that firm, as well as several support staff and law clerks. In 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys. In 2017, he was also selected for the Super Lawyers Top 50 in San Diego list. In 2014, he was selected as a Top Attorney by Los Angeles Magazine. Additionally, Mr. Armstrong was also named as a Top Attorney by the San Diego Business Journal in 2014.

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