What crime would someone be charged with if they chose not to save someone's life?

I was debating with my friends about something that happened in a TV show (Don’t remember which show unfortunately)
Anyway, one of us said that one of the characters was a murderer, because he could have saved someone who was in danger, but deliberately chose not to. This character was not the one who put the victim in danger.
If that happened in real life, would it actually be considered murder? Or more along the lines of criminal negligence?

Breaking Bad?

I don’t think any charges could be filed, but I’m not certain.

Depraved indifference?

It’s only negligence if you have a duty of care to the other person, which must be established in some way. A doctor letting their patient die would certainly be liable, as would a parent for their child. A teacher letting a student die might be liable. A random stranger, certainly not. A peer, probably not.

The fear of being liable for harm caused in the attempt to help someone is real and sometimes justifiable, to the extent that many jurisdictions have had to pass Good Samaritan laws to protect people from prosecution if they are legitimately trying to help a person in need. Without such laws you could certainly be liable if your attempt to help someone makes things worse; for example you kill someone by moving them from where they were injured instead of letting medical professionals take over.

I have never heard of a legal requirement to help a stranger, if it exists I’m sure it’s rare. I’m also sure it would be counterproductive, causing people to avoid cries for help so that they could plausibly deny being in the vicinity and avoiding the obligation to help someone.

Of course if people are in your care you could be liable as Chronos stated. A lifeguard ignoring a person in trouble might be another example.

I always wondered this about Bette Davis’s famous scene in The Little Foxes. Since no one else was around to witness it, she let her husband struggle and die while trying reach his heart medication. She was suspected, but I wondered if she could be arrested or held liable in any way even if anyone could prove he died due to her delay.

Wikpedia has a general summary about the duty to rescue. In Common Law jurisdictions, it works out like this:

I’ve bolded cases where it might be illegal to not rescue, or at the very least illegal to ignore, a total stranger.

The OP is asking about criminal sanctions, but it seems to me the bulk of the responses are discussing whether there is any civil liability for a failure to rescue.

I think there are only a very few states currently imposing a criminal penalty for failing to report or rescue the victim of an emergency. More states criminalize the failure to report instances of specific victims of specific crimes – that is, anyone who is aware of a minor who is the victim of sexual assault, for instance, must report it or face criminal penalties.

We discussed this issue several years ago:

There is the 'Good Samaritan Law ’ I posted a link about it.

Huh, I didn’t realize that there were states where everyone was a mandatory reporter for child abuse. I don’t think Ohio is one, though I’m a mandatory reporter anyway due to my jobs.

As I understand it, that refers to actively committing an act with the knowledge that it has a high probability of harming or killing someone. I believe the OP is referring to passive non-action.

Except for certain categories of occupations, no one is legally required to attempt to rescue someone else. I do, however, hope that you can at least manage to pull out your cell phone and call 911 if you observe someone in distress.

In Germany that would be section 323c of the penal code:

Are there civil liabilities?

I am walking down the street. I see a man beating a woman with a baseball bat. I do nothing - I don’t call 911, I don’t attempt to intervene, I just continue walking and forget all about it. I am not in fear of my life, I don’t know either party, I just don’t care, and, when the police question me later, I just say “it was none of my business”. Have I breached a duty of care? Am I civilly liable because I didn’t do anything, however slight?

On a possibly related note, the person who killed Kitty Genovese died today. AFAIK nobody was held liable in that case for not calling the cops.


That probably depends on where you are.

Yes, but not under the circumstances you describe. You have the right to intervene to prevent a felony (like the battery in your scenario) including using reasonable force, but not the duty.

Generally, an ordinary person (that is, one who is not a peace officer or some other public servant who might be expected to intervene) owes no duty to protect others from harms they did not cause or create.

So if you are hanging from a cliff by your fingertips, I have no duty to help you up unless the reason you’re there is that I pushed you.

Or unless there’s a relationship between you that creates such a duty.

And as others have already reported, in some jurisdictions you might at least be required to call the police, even if you don’t give help yourself.

The Spanish situation is similar, in that it only affects the general populace in case of an accident (traffic or otherwise). There are more stringent requirements in certain specific cases, such as the duties of a medical professional or a parent. Someone who doesn’t know what to do or freaks out in an emergency won’t get in trouble, but every year there are a few cases of people being taken into custody while their caretakers are investigated for “criminal neglect (with or without a result of death)” - I’m translating the Spanish terms as literally as possible.

As a general relativity physicist?

(That’s a joke. I’m sure you have many activities you don’t share with the TM.)

As a substitute teacher and as a camp counselor. I don’t have much opportunity to do GR any more, though I did get to teach it to some fourth graders a few weeks ago.