Causation, Good Samaritan Laws and Blind Men Walking off Cliffs

Contributed By Joe Timmins

If Person A, a Blind Man, is Walking Towards the Edge of a Cliff and Person B watches Person A do so Without Stopping him, is Person B guilty of killing Person A?

Please note that for ease of reference, ‘he/she’ will be replaced by ‘he’.

This is a legal problem centered on the issue of causation. English law requires the Prosecution to prove the Defendant has two parts to each offence- Actus Reus, the physical conduct of committing a crime and Mens Rea, proving the defendant was aware that his conduct would lead to the crime or should have been aware. Once Actus Reus and Mens Rea have been proved, causation has also been proved connecting the defendants conduct with the resulting effect.

In the case of Person A and B, to help us understand whether Person B is guilty of the unlawful killing of Person A we can use a ‘but for test’ (Sine Qua Non) to determine factual causation. We must ask ourselves, ‘but for what Person B did (failed to act), would the consequences to Person A occurred’. The answer to this is no, and therefore causation has been proved in fact. If Person B had taken reasonable measures to inform person A he was walking off a cliff, person A would not have died. Person B’s failure to act is an indirect cause of Person A’s death. But the factual cause merely establishes a preliminary connection between the act and the consequence. Having now passed that test, we must determine whether Person B is a legal cause of Person A’s death. Legal causation occurs when a person’s conduct is a substantial factor in bringing about harm. I would argue that Person B’s failure to act very much was a substantial factor in bringing about harm to Person A. Person A was a vulnerable man who must often been reliant on the people around him to aid him in his day to day life. It is reasonable to assume that Person A had no intention to walk off the cliff, and therefore it cannot be argued that even if Person B was to intervene, Person A would have continued to walk towards the edge of the cliff- Emphasising the significance of Person B’s omission to act.

It would seem that Person B’s case is looking very weak, and criminal charges of murder or gross negligent manslaughter would not be surprising. After all, the fact that there would have been a time gap between Person A walking towards the edge of the cliff and then falling off suggests that there was malice aforethought by Person B which would give a prosecution team grounds to open a murder trial. In addition, I would hope that the fact that Person A was disabled would suggest anybody including his family or member of the public would feel they have a duty of care to safeguard him. Seen as this duty of care was breached, should Person B not be criminally punished?

Despite all this, Person B cannot be found guilty of any unlawful killing. The Actus Reas element cannot be proved as the act of omission only applies if you do not do something that the law requires. For example, a parent who fails to feed their baby, resulting in the baby’s death would be guilty of unlawful killing as parents are required by law to look after their children. In this scenario however, under English law, there is no liability for a failure to act to prevent harm or wrongdoing or a crime being committed.  This means Person B was under no legal duty to try and stop Person A walking over the cliff edge, even if he was close enough to do so. The reason for this is because the UK does not have a ‘Good Samaritan’ law whereby a defendant would commit a crime for not doing what he should have, as France does. In the eyes of English law, as Person B took no positive action to cause Person A’s death, B did not commit a crime or become a party to it just because he could have took reasonable action to prevent it.

To conclude, Person B has a moral obligation to take at least reasonable care to prevent the death of another man. Legally however, there is limited scope under English law to enforce any punishment, if any at all. Seen as from the information given, we can assume Person B was not under any contractual duty, voluntary duty, or duty derived from statute (to name a few), Person B was not obliged to prevent the death of Person A. This could change very soon in the UK following a press release on the 2nd of June this year when Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced ‘Good Samaritans and community heroes will have the law on their side in the future’ with new legislation proposed to come into place at the beginning of 2015. Good Samaritan laws offer legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those who are in peril, and encourage people to offer assistance. The purpose of the protection is to encourage people to offer assistance who may be hesitant for fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death. In the future, this may be accompanied by a duty of rescue as there is in France and Germany. In France, ‘deliberately failing to provide assistance to a person in danger’ can be punished by up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000. While I cannot foresee a duty of rescue entering the English legal system anytime soon, the newly proposed Good Samaritan laws are a step in the right direction to prevent any future real life stories similar to that of Person A and B; and common sense will become the order of the day opposed to hesitant bystanders fearing legal liability


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