What Is The Duty To Act?

This week I’d like to explore two related topics that tend to create a bunch of confusion – the duty to act and the good Samaritan law. If you want to see a room full of EMTs argue with each other, ask a question like, “So, when does an EMT have a legal duty to act?” or “To whom does the good sam law really apply?” These are subjects where myth and confusion are more common than fact so lets jump in to these two, often confusing, legal tenants.

Today we’ll look at the duty to act and on Thursday we’ll dive in to the good samaritan law.

On duty or off duty, paid or volunteer, in or out of uniform, when do you, as a professional rescuer really have a legal duty to act? Once you have a duty to act, what does that mean for your care and your liability? The true meaning of the duty to act can be confusing.

One of the things that make legal definitions like the duty to act so hard to nail down is the fact that they are not elements of federal law. They can’t be applied universally to caregivers around the nation. If they were we could say, “Here in the United States the duty to act is defined as … This is different from Canada and Great Britain where …” But it isn’t that simple. Depending on which country, state or territory you live in, the duty to act can mean very different things.

For the professional rescuer the duty to act is generally inherent to employment. If you are a trained medical professional and you are acting with an expectation of compensation you have a duty to act appropriately and within the scope of your training when called to assist with an emergency situation.

Let’s put that in plain English. If your are on the clock and receiving pay for your service, you have a duty to respond to emergencies and provide appropriate rescue and care. The rescue and care you provide has to be in accordance with your training. It also has to be reasonable and within your scope of practice.

Here are some common situational questions:

What if I’m a volunteer working for an ambulance company or a fire service? Volunteer are not generally recognized as having a duty to act. If you aren’t receiving pay or benefits for your service (remuneration) then your acts remain a voluntary choice and not a legal obligation.

What if I’m not on the clock but I am in uniform? While your failure to act in an emergency may reflect poorly on your organization and stir some public outrage, there is no legal tenant that links your attire to your duty to act. The law could basically care less what your wearing, they care if your being compensated.

What if I receive some compensation other than money for my service? This is where the law gets fuzzy. What does or does not meet the definition of remuneration or compensation (depending on the wording of the code) may ultimately need to be determined by the court.

Some common forms of compensation are occasionally addressed in the actual legal text. For instance here in Colorado (USA), Ski resort volunteers who receive ski passes for compensation, but not money, are still protected under good samaritan protection and do not have a duty to act.

Does this mean that I can’t be sued for not providing care if I’m not on duty? No. This is a common misconception. You can be sued for just about anything. This means that you are unlikely to be found guilty of a crime if you are sued.

Other interesting facts about the duty to act:

Some untrained citizens fall under “duty to act” or “duty to rescue” laws. For instance, in most industrialized nations, spouses have a duty to attempt to rescue each other – including all fifty states of the U.S. Travel industry personnel have a duty to assist their patrons in emergencies. Parents also have a duty to rescue and assist minor children including “in loco parentis” caregivers like school teachers and babysitters.

U.S. common law dictates that there is no general duty to act in an emergency, however, at least eight states have enacted laws requiring citizens to assist strangers in peril. These states include Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, Rode Island and Vermont. You can be charged with a misdemeanor for not responding to someone in danger. Citizens are never required to place themselves in peril. This allows for so much subjectivity that the laws are generally ignored by law makers and citizens.

In opposition to citizen duty to act laws, Texas has a statute stating that no citizen has a duty to assist another against their voluntary will.

The TV show Sienfeld used the citizen duty to act law as the premise for the series final show in 1998.

European countries tend to have more strongly worded citizen duty to act laws stating that anyone who reasonably capable is responsible for rendering aid to another in peril so long as it does not place them in harms way.

What about when you don’t have a duty to act? If you’re off duty and not receiving compensation are their any protections for you if you attempt to render aid? On Thursday we’ll discuss the good samaritan law.

Related Articles:

The EMT Code of Ethics

What Is The Good Samaritan Law? (coming soon)

Five Rules For One Shift


  1. Great post, as usual.
    Rough topic for those in the volunteer and private industries. Clear cut for us paid municipal folk.
    I’d like to challenge you to take this one step further though and possibly cause some big waves.
    What if I, the Paramedic, is told by my employer that today I am to work as the driver of the BLS engine that has ALS equipment and am not being paid as a Paramedic, but as a Driver?
    Do I have a duty to act as a paramedic as licensed?


  2. HM,

    As you often make clear in your “You Make the Call” posts doing the right thing is the better position to defend. Not doing anything and defending not doing anything because of your pay rate at the least will reflect poorly on you and your organization and at worst could have large financial consequence for local government and your employment status.

    In your scenario is a crew member on the engine trained and designated to provide ALS assessment and care?

  3. In South Carolina does an EMS have a duty and, if so, is there an acceptable response time?

  4. Steve Whitehead says:

    I agree with Greg, HM. On most calls you can fall back and take the BLS seat, but if you’re the only dude there and ALS intervention is needed, you need to pull out all the stops. The public and the law doesn’t care about subtle pay differences. If your a trained and approved ALS provider in the system, you need to step up. Legaly and morally.

  5. Steve Whitehead says:

    Aida your expectation of compensation will still dictate if you have a duty to act or are a “good samaritan.” Acceptable response times will depend on your community and the resources available.

  6. Bart Cowan says:

    If you are a paid provider and have a pt in the back and come upon an accident, do you still have a duty to act in the state of KY?

  7. Does an emt in new jersey have a moral or legal duty to take care of a person in need of help? Whether on the job or oFF? An trying to find an answer to this ? for a class I am taking. Thanks in advance if you know the answer.

  8. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Bart You do not have a duty to act if you are already commited to patient care or assigned to the care of a patient. But you should assess the needs of the patients on the scene vs the nature of the patient in the rig and consider splitting your crew until more help arrives.

    @Anita All the information above applies to you in New Jersey. If you are on duty you have a legal duty to act. If you are not on duty, you do not have a legal duty to act. The moral perspective is up to you to decide.

  9. @Bart: If you are transporting a pt, any pt, let’s say it’s just some kid who fell and sprained his ankle…

    and you come across armafreakinggeddon……ten car pileup, and an arm flys out of one of them and leaves a bloody streak on your white hood of the ambulance…

    you have to keep transporting your patient.

    you may not stop.

    you’d be abandoning your patient.

    If you’re on the way to the scene of said sprained ankle, you can call up dispatch and say “hey, can you divert me to this pileup I just witnessed?” and if they dispatch someone else to the sprain, you can run over to the pileup and save the day.

    but you can’t self-dispatch in most areas

  10. marie mitchell says:

    My lawyer told me it was ok my neighbors to watch my 12 yr. son chock to
    death on a balloon, in their bedroom they did not have to reeder aid to my
    son.He was on complete life support for 5 days then he passed away. My
    lawyer said that was legal.

  11. marie mitchell says:

    So you have to reender to a minor child
    In your home in Texas?!

  12. Confused Rookie EMT says:

    I’m a Basic for a private company and a volunteer for a small township department. On my way home from work tonight, I came across a two car MVA with local FD en route. I was still in my uniform for the private company and held c-spine for a patient with chest pain as a precaution. In uniform, off the clock, and not a member of local FD, was I in the wrong for initiating pt care? The medic let the patient into the back of the truck, didn’t speak to me or tell to release c-spine and pretty much made me feel like an ass.

  13. administrator says:

    @Confused There are a multitude of reasons why the medic on scene chose to ignore your care. He / she may have disagreed with your prioritizing the c-spine of a single patient over the more general management of the scene. They may have been having a bad day. They may have some bias against your organization that leads them to behave unprofessionally toward folks wearing your uniform. They may have felt something you were doing was medically inappropriate. The possibilities are endless. If it concerns you, I would try to talk with the medic about it. Only the individual can explain their actions. We can only speculate.

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  18. Winn Williams says:

    What IF,

    An off duty paramedic in their personal vehicle has a head on collision with someone, freaks out, and leaves the scene of the accident? This actually happened in the city I live in….

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  20. I work in an Urgent Care center as a Paramedic. We are not open 24 hours a day, but our multi-department building is open to patients for an hour before the Urgent Care opens. The Urgent Care staff begin work about 15-30 minutes prior to our official opening time. This is scheduled, paid time…we are “on-duty”. What are our obligations if a emergent patient is found in our waiting room prior to our scheduled opening time, yet after we have begun receiving compensation? Our current policy states that medical care shouldn’t be initiated until the designated opening time. Clerical staff already in the building for other departments are to greet the patient and call 911, while keeping the patient/family “comfortable”. I’m concerned that duty to act is in play because we are on the clock, yet there is a policy that directs to not act. From a legal standpoint, would I be required to act in direct violation of the policy?

  21. What do you do when one of your lying peremedics lies an over steps their boundaries hollaring I have a act of duty to act ????

  22. I work for a combination city fire dept in georgia and I have a chief that insists that we do not pass the city limit sign even if dispatched by our communications center and alot of times we can be the first responders on scene if we were allowed to respond. My department and our surrounding county only have 1 man engines and is more of a rural community . I am a ff/emt -I, could this be a breach of duty for me or the department. thank u

  23. NYS EMT says:

    So I have to ask:

    I work as a paid emt for a private ambulance company which operates on Long Island (Suffolk and Nassau County), & the five boroughs (NYC). Do I only have a duty to act when I am dispatched to an assignment or do I have a duty to act even if I am not assigned (dispatched) to an assignment but I notice what appears to be a motor vehicle collision with injured victims, or while at the local convenience store picking up a drink, I observe someone with a minor head injury (bleeding but not life threatening), do I have a duty to act in these cases or am I legally allowed to continue on my merry way?? (the ambulance is staffed with two (2) NYS Certified EMT-B’s, is not currently transporting any patient and is not currently assigned or responding to another emergency).

  24. Heres a real life scenario, I’m at a small acoustic concert, drinking diet coke and water, a woman who looks between 70-80 years old is carried from the audience, she apparently collapsed, I ask my husband to hold my purse and go over introducing myself, the patients daughter says thank god you’re an EMT can you help her, she suddenly comes to as I’m asking did you see her fall ect, ect and trying to examine her, suddenly a couple roughed up DB bouncers jump in and tell me I can’t help her I need to step back, I identify myself, 1 time, 2 times, 3 times but instead they pick her up under arms and carry her outside delirious ( I have to add that inside its about 80 degrees outside its about 95!!!!) So already I’m really mad, I’m sure you can see the red flags going off in my head…. they were more worried about getting her out and carrying on with the concert!!!! They wouldn’t let me help her with my 5’4 120 pound frame I’m not about to go against three brut and very rude bouncers (What bouncers aren’t rude though). At this point I get out my phone ready to call for help but I have no service! I go outside and the woman is delirious, clammy and hunched over on a stool while they try to shove bottled water down her throat while telling she’s just hot she’ll be fine….. so maybe she is, or maybe she’s in shock! I go back in to get my husband and come out, apparently these morons put her in the back of a cab with her water and sent her home! I’m a volunteer so I have no duty to act, but no one else is going to help this poor women….what rights did I have in this situation to help (this was in Minnesota, I am not certified in this state but I have National Certification). Any advice?

  25. Is anyone familiar with the Good Samaritin Laws in Tx and/or a past or present school nurse. I need some advice. It’s something that occurred few years ago. I’m a nurse with 20+ years experience. Let me know if anyone has some time and can render some advice ! Thanks !!

  26. madhu patri says:


    On identify when brought to the notice duty to defend arises to authority.

    When asked duty to defend arises to authority at care and supply.

    The fundamental duty of the person is to bring to the notice of The Presiding Officer about the requirement, any requirement as per The Sate Directives.

    The liability of The State to take the burden arises in lieu to the responsibility to care as a custodian of HIS CITIZEN with in the purview as per the constitution to be sustained with comply and allow HIS EXCELLENCY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NATION to perform HIS DUTIES TOWARDS WITH COMPLIANCE



    21august2015,friday,20.19hrs, I.S.T.

  27. Rumor has it that EMTs licensed to practice in the state of New Jersey, USA (NJ) have a duty to act, even when not being compensated. Can anyone confirm? Are there any other U.S. states like this?


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