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What are Good Samaritan laws?

Good Samaritan laws provide legal protection for volunteer rescuers in emergency situations.  They’re meant as a way to encourage others — including those who aren’t health-care professionals — to act by removing the threat of legal liability for injuries or other problems that could result from their intervention.

In some countries, a good samaritan law actually requires a person to act, but Canada’s laws don’t obligate you — they’re meant to remove threats that might make people hesitant to help.

The exception is Quebec, whose civil law code actually imposes a duty to help someone in peril as long as it doesn’t threaten your own safety or that of a third party.

New Brunswick and Nunavut are the only jurisdictions with no Good Samaritan law on the books.

The laws vary by province, but are similar. They say anyone who provides emergency medical aid to an ill, injured or unconscious person at the scene of an accident or emergency can’t be sued for injuries or death caused by the rescuer’s actions — whether it’s something they’ve done or neglected to do — as long as their actions weren’t grossly negligent.

There’s no rigid definition for “grossly negligent,” but past court cases indicate it means failing to meet a certain standard of care.

A 1981 Ontario court case has provided one of the clearer definitions of that standard, and many later cases have referred back to it in their decisions. It reads, in part:

“Even during an attempt to assist someone in an emergency, the law expects reasonable care to be exercised, even though the standard is relaxed to a certain extent. The court does not expect perfection, but rescuers must be sensible. They, like anyone else, must weigh the advantages and the risks of their conduct. Their conduct, too, however laudable, must measure up to the standard of the reasonable person in similar circumstances.”

For example, you couldn’t be sued for breaking someone’s rib performing CPR, but an impromptu surgery or radical manoeuvre could spell trouble.

Also, hesitating to help someone — perhaps someone you don’t like — could be viewed as grossly negligent, as would injuring others in an attempt to provide aid. If you shove through a crowd to an accident scene and push a bystander into oncoming traffic, you could be liable for their injuries.

So if you can offer help in an emergency situation, remember that you won’t be legally liable for any reasonable, practical assistance you can offer. In most of Canada, Good Samaritans are protected.

Read more:

B.C.’s Good Samaritan Act 

Manitoba’s Good Samaritan Protection Act