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Assisting People in Distress - Personal Injury Solicitor Comments

By Principal Lawyer, Occupiers and Public Liability

I am always surprised when I read generally in newspapers, of situations where someone has been in a position of distress such as falling into a ditch or pond, and those who are bystanders do nothing to assist.

I am even more surprised where situations arise where an accident occurred, say on a platform or escalator and employees who one would expect to be the first on the scene, do nothing at all.

What amazes me the most is the arguments that are put forward on the defence of any criticism.

The latest such article is one which appeared in the newspapers recently regarding an elderly woman who fell on an escalator at Leeds Station.

The accident appears to have occurred well within the confines of premises which I assume were owned and run by a rail company. The rail company employees were apparently standing close to where the elderly woman fell. They will have seen the accident or at the very least would have heard the commotion thereafter since members of the public appeared to have rushed to the woman’s aid.

When questioned after the accident as to why they did not assist, the newspapers article suggests the same employees explained in response they had not received any training on how to lift someone and they hadn’t been trained in ‘people handling’.

Truth be told, as a Personal Injury Solicitor, I am not exactly sure what being trained in ‘people handling’ actually means.

The same employees will have received lifting training. Are they saying that lifting an elderly woman and ensuring that she was not so injured as to require an ambulance to be called requires separate training?

In any event it was down to passers by to assist the woman who appears at least from the article that I have read, not to have been seriously injured.

One must pause there to consider the law in these circumstances. You may be surprised to hear there is essentially a legal doctrine in relation to these circumstances, at least from one angle.

There is no duty on the bystander or rescuer to assist. There is of course a moral duty but not one which is founded in law.

The other angle is the extent to which there is an obligation on an employee in such circumstances where the accident occurs on the employer’s land and in the circumstances where the employee would have to deal with members of the public as part of their normal duties. Is there a duty of care on such employees?

Although I cannot see any specific case law on this point, I would not be surprised if a Judge was to find as a very palatable argument, one where the claimant can show employees in such circumstances simply stood by and did nothing at all.

We would need to establish and to succeed in such a claim, that the inaction of the employees led to a personal injury. If an injury has occurred already and has not been materially worsened by the inaction of the employees, there is little by way of a valid action to be taken by the injured person.

What then of the emergency services which attend and decide that it is unsafe to go to the assistance of a person who might for example be trapped on ice.

Leaving aside that argument that those in the emergency services must not of course place themselves at risk (if they are injured, they provide little use to the person who they were called to assist), there is a clear moral obligation on the emergency services to do their utmost to assist the person in question.

If the hazard is so great that they themselves would be at risk of a serious injury occurring if they were to assist, there must be an argument that all appropriate steps must be considered first.

Take for example the situation whereby someone has fallen off a cliff and landed on a ledge 12ft below. If this person requires immediate medical assistance, there is no obligation on the paramedics to then abseil down the cliff in circumstances where they do not have any training to do so and where abseiling must be seen as being a specialist skill involving an inherent danger.

There is however an obligation both morally and in my view in law, for the emergency services to do their utmost to assist that person.

This should not be seen as a criticism. I know when speaking to numerous members of the emergency services, that they have been injured in situations whereby they have no thought for themselves. Instead their primary concern has been that of the injured person, the person who requires their assistance and is in distress.

Whilst I accept therefore that there are situations whereby people who really ought to assist do not, I anticipate that in the vast majority of cases that reason prevails.

Tristan Hallam is a Personal Injury Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.

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