Protect Yourself As a Good Samaritan: Basic Legal Guidelines to Follow When Administering First Aid

If you witness an accident or come upon a person who is severely injured, it's natural for instinct to kick in: you use your first-aid training to assist in saving the person's life or to treat injury. However, sometimes the help you provide can hurt you later: if you inadvertently provided unwanted help or make unseen injuries worse, you could be liable for damages should the injured person choose to sue for personal injury. Here is how you can protect yourself while still administering proper first-response care to an injured party.

Always ask to help and speak your intentions. 

Even though a person may be gravely injured, they still maintain autonomy over their body. They have the right to refuse or accept care, even if their life is in danger. Therefore, it is up to you to make sure that you respect this right. Before you touch another person or begin any sort of first-aid procedure, introduce yourself if the person is conscious and explain what you will do and ask if it will be okay.

For example, if a person is bleeding badly from a large gash in your arm, you might say, "My name is John. I am certified in advanced first aid. You are bleeding heavily from your arm. Can stop the bleeding and apply pressure?" If the person gives noticeable consent, such as "yes" or a verifiable nodding of the head, you can proceed with you administrations. However, if the person shakes the head or refuses your treatment, or if they ask for something different, refrain from acting. This may seem wrong, but you must avoid the legal consequences of refusing to accept a person's right to refuse care. 

Do not move injured persons if possible.

Internal injuries are silent killers, and moving a person with a neck or back injury can make the injury much worse. Unless you can properly assess that the injury is minor, you should attempt to move the person until qualified emergency personnel arrive.

Of course, sometimes moving the person is essential to their survival. For example, if a person jumps from their vehicle into a fiery ditch, moving them might be the only way to prevent life-threatening burns. Here, it is important, again, to state your intentions and the reasons why you are choosing to move them to safety. If at all possible, however, choose another alternative, such as putting out the flames with a blanket. 

Assess the needs of the person before providing care.

Just because you can provide first aid does not mean you should. In some cases, especially when injuries are minor and not life-threatening, it is best to wait for professional emergency response teams to treat the injuries. A broken bone, for instance, is painful and can look terrible when it's a compound fracture, but if the injured person's life is not threatened by the bone, your best offering of help is calling 911 and a family member to take care of the person. When time is of the essence, however, such as when there is a need for CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, your actions are more needed and valuable.

Basically, the risk of legal repercussion decreases with the immediate need for first aid. If your administrations would not be life saving, think before acting, especially if the person is unconscious and therefore unable to provide informed consent.

Know the bounds of the law. 

Good-samaritan laws are active in many states, and these laws often protect those who are acting out of goodwill to save a life. However, reasonable caution must be applied, and it is essential that you not ask for goods or payment as part of your help, or else the law is void. Contact a personal-injury office for more information on legal protections that can be extended to good-samaritan acts and how to protect yourself when in these situations.