Bystanders who rush to help accident victims are often harassed by the police and hospitals. A new set of guidelines announced following a Supreme court order hopes to correct this.
By Nayantara Roy
China got its “Good Samaritan Law” in 2013 after an outcry over the death of toddler Wang Yue who was run over by two vehicles while around 18 bystanders did nothing to help the child.
On September 3 in a shocking incident a beggar was run over in Jaipur while crossing a road and then repeatedly run over by passing vehicles until after an hour orso a cyclist informed the police.
In August, two incidents took place in Delhi which jolted the conscience of the city. In one, a man who was run over by a delivery truck lay dying on the roadside while over 400 vehicles, including a police PCR van, passed by. CCTV cameras at the site showed a rickshawallah stopping to pocket the dying man’s mobile phone and continuing on his way. In the second incident, an ice-cream seller Amritlal was knocked down by a car and dragged along for some distance at about 11:30 pm near the Gole Market intersection. The driver of the car told Amritlal’s co-workers that he would take injured Amritlal to the hospital so they helped put him into the back of the car.Instead of taking him to the hospital, the car driver dumped the injured man near MS Flats on Peshwa Road and fled. While his family searched for him at hospitals, he died unattended on the road.
Just a few months before the two Delhi incidents, the Supreme Court had issued guidelines to protect “good Samaritans”—bystanders who help accident victims. The NGO, Save Life Foundation, had filed a PIL in 2012 seeking such guidelines as an interim measure while contending that a law be enacted to protect people who help accident victims from harassment by the police, hospital authorities, victim’s families, etc. The primary cause of reluctance to help accident victims was attributed to the problems faced by those who help on account of being detained for questioning by the police, becoming embroiled as a witness in a motor vehicles case, and so on.
GOOD SAMARITAN LAW
A “Good Samaritan” law is one to protect people who help the injured or sick in public places, from harassment of different kinds, such as questioning by the police or hospital authorities or from being sued. The idea is to encourage people to come forward to help when such incidents occur. India does not have such a law yet, although Karnataka has proposed a Good Samaritan and Medical Professionals Act. Other states such as Delhi and Rajasthan are considering similar laws.
Several countries have the legal framework to protect Good Samaritans. Here are some of them:
Countries such as Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA have Good Samaritan laws which protect rescuers in varying degrees. In countries which follow the British common law system, the norm appears to be to attempt to protect bona fide rescuers who do not end up causing great harm. On the other hand, in countries which follow the civil law system, like France, Germany and Finland there is a duty to rescue (albeit within certain qualifying parameters).
In an interview to The Hindu, Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLife Foundation, reportedly said about the Supreme Court guidelines, “Hospitals and the police know that these guidelines exist, but no one is accountable. The guidelines also don’t talk about who implements them. We need the guidelines to be converted into a State law …”
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Good Samaritan laws exist to encourage rescue in various countries. However, there have been instances of rescuers being sued by the rescued. In December 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lisa Torti who rescued her friend Alexandra Van Horn from a car crash, was sued by her friend for “pulling her out like a rag doll” from the vehicle that Torti thought might explode. Van Horn lost the use of her legs.
In China, before the Good Samaritan Act was enacted there was a famous 2006 case in Nanjing where a man helped an old lady who had fallen and broken her hip. Faced with high medical expenses, she sued Peng Yu, the man who had helped her, and was awarded $6000 in damages.
In India, journalist Devangshu Datta recounts how when he had helped an auto driver whose auto had turned turtle, the policemen stationed at the hospital immediately assumed that he had caused the accident. It was only when the accident victim spoke up saying that Datta had helped him and not caused the accident that the police desisted from their line of questioning. Datta says a friend of his, also a journalist, was not so lucky. He took a stranger who had a heart attack at a coffee bar to hospital. The stranger died and the journalist’s car was impounded and subsequently needed to be produced on more than one occasion. This was necessary for evidence purposes, but a nuisance all the same.
Change is coming about in India. Standing order No. Ops 19 from the office of the Commissioner of Police, Delhi and signed on January 30, 2015 instructs the police that, “vehicles of the victims and/or the complainants seized by the police as case property may be released to the owner on furnishing a surety bond after completing necessary investigation such as getting the vehicle photographed, mechanical inspection etc”. These instructions were set out in the case Arun Handa vs Government of NCT of Delhi.
A circular dated December 5, 2014 from the office of the Police Commissioner, Delhi, states the importance of getting timely assistance from “public persons in rushing the victims to hospital which can “save many precious lives, especially during the ‘Golden Hour’”. This circular, issued after the PIL had been filed by SaveLife Foundation, also lists recommendations by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (as it was called at that time) and the Law Ministry, as directed by the Supreme Court, to help good Samaritans.
These include such measures as not questioning a Samaritan who is not an eyewitness and allowing him to leave the hospital immediately, exempting good Samaritans from criminal liability except, in case of “malafides”, making name and contact details optional, using technology such as video conferencing when examining the Samaritan in order to minimize harassment.
Joint Commissioner South Western Range, Dependra Pathak, also suggests technological solutions to decrease problems for the Good Samaritan who doubles up as a witness in the case. He mentions taking statements via skype (although you have to confirm the IP address, confirm whether it is the same person, etc). He says emphatically that life-saving is paramount, so there should be no harassment of the person who brings in a victim. But he points out that in a vast majority of the cases it is a police vehicle, either a PCR van or a CATs ambulance, thatbrings in the victim.
Then there is the flip side. Pathak tells the story of a Delhi University professor who was run over near Vasant Gaon in Delhi. An auto driver brought him in, and as leaving personal details is optional, he left without giving any particulars about himself. The professor did not survive. His wife now wants to know what happened to her husband, but the auto driver is not contactable. How are the police to solve cases and find out if there is a guilty party, if they can’t examine witnesses?
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Pathak advocates the middle path, where a Samaritan who is additionally a witness, may be assisted to give his statement without harassment. He points out that it’s not just police questioning but attending court cases that a witness has to face. He should not be made to make repeated trips to the courts, says Pathak, but his statement should be taken at the first instance regardless of factors leading to adjournments such as the opposing lawyer not being present and so on. Further depositions or cross examination may be done by video conferencing.
He points out that while the police have to ensure not to harass a Good Samaritan, bystanders and witnesses also have a duty to come forward and assist the police.
The guideline circulars also mention rewarding Samaritans as an incentive. According to newspaper reports, the Delhi government plans to give auto drivers who carry accident victims to hospital Rs 2,000 each time they do this. It remains to be seen how this works out on the ground.
Hospitals have been known to turn away injured patients for fear of being embroiled in “medico-legal” cases. Under Section 39(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, doctors, staff at hospitals in fact, “Every person, aware of the commission of, or of the intention of any other person to commit, any offence punishable under any of the following sections of the Indian Penal Code” has a duty to inform the nearest police station. The December 5, 2014 Delhi police circular (passed under Supreme Court directions) has provision for disciplinary measures against doctors who do not respond and also hospitals for harassing Samaritans in ways such as asking for money.
The 1989 Supreme Court judgment in Parmanand Katara vs Union of India mandates that a hospital must provide emergency care to an accident victim as it is part of his/her right to life. If the concerned hospital does not have the facilities to handle the case, it must transport the victim to the nearest hospital dealing with medico-legal cases, in its own ambulance after giving first-aid. The case was filed because an accident victim who was denied aid by a hospital had died en-route to the next hospital.
A Good Samaritan law would have to take into consideration these requirements and also provide protection for medical professionals so that they are not afraid of stepping in to render professional help.
India is poised on the threshold of bringing in Good Samaritan laws. A step has been taken by formulating the Supreme Court guidelines for the authorities to facilitate the work of a “Good Samaritan” rather than harass him. These are the laws of the land at the moment and have been circulated to police stations and hospitals in Delhi, at least. The choice of law poses an interesting question. Do we need to incorporate an element of the “duty to rescue” concept or will lessening harassment and providing incentives be adequate? The balance between encouraging people to help and yet not closing the doors to an investigation has to be finessed.
In the meanwhile, a beginning has been made.
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Lead picture: UNI