Are You Legally Required to Stop (or Help) After Encountering an Auto Accident?

If you've ever been involved in an auto accident on a busy stretch of highway, you may have been dismayed at the number of fellow drivers who breezed right by you—or worse, audaciously honked their horns for you to move out of the way—without stopping to see whether you needed help. However, it can be difficult to know how you'll react in a situation until you're confronted with it directly, and if you're late for work one day or simply don't want to risk putting yourself in danger, you may find yourself driving past after witnessing an accident. Fortunately, a number of states have enacted "good Samaritan" laws that provide civil protections and even immunity to those who attempt to render aid in good faith (even if this aid winds up having the opposite effect). Read on to learn more about your protections against liability if you choose to stop and help after witnessing an auto accident as well as some best practices by which you should abide when rendering help.

What states have laws governing "good Samaritan" behavior?

Not all states have good Samaritan laws, so the issue of whether you'll be immune from liability for stopping and helping after an accident can vary widely depending on where you live (and drive). However, most states do have laws on the books that provide civil immunity (including protection against being sued in the first place) for those who stop to render aid to someone who appears to be in critical condition or who is not able to handle his or her own medical needs. 

These laws don't always extend to all types of treatment or even all state citizens. For example, Arizona's good Samaritan laws apply only to health care providers—so a private citizen rendering aid to an injured person may not be protected from liability. Other states may provide protection for certain types of treatment like CPR or wound care but not for more extensive or risky ones, like an emergency tracheotomy or splinting of a broken limb.

It can be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the good Samaritan laws in your state (as well as those you visit regularly) so you'll already have a handle on your rights and responsibilities if or when you find yourself in an emergency situation. 

What should you do if you witness an auto accident? 

Regardless of the specific good Samaritan laws and protections in your state, there are a few standard procedures you'll want to employ if you witness or come upon an auto accident

The first is to act quickly. Don't assume that if the accident took place in a well-traveled area that others will stop to provide assistance. As many sociologists have observed, the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon actually makes it less likely that aid will be successfully rendered when there are multiple people present rather than just one. Even if you do nothing more than make a call to 911 or the local police, you'll have taken tangible action that can help those who are injured.

If you are willing to stop, you'll then want to assess the scene and get yourself (and any victims) out of danger as quickly as possible. You may need to weigh the risk of moving an injured person with the risk of further injury if they stay put (for example, if the accident has spun both vehicles into oncoming traffic in a low-visibility area). If you're uncertain of what to do, it may be best to wait for emergency personnel, but to the extent you're able to remove any sources of immediate danger, you'll be able to assist these victims before the professionals arrive.

Talk to a car-accident attorney for more information about car-accident law.