When You Witness An Accident: How To Keep Yourself Legally Safe If You're The First On Scene

If you witness an accident, particularly one where someone is seriously injured, your first instinct is often to jump into the fray to help the people who might have been affected. Being a good Samaritan is often part of good citizenship, but when it comes to accidents, it can actually cause more harm than good for both yourself and the victim. If you happen upon an accident before emergency crews arrive, here are some guidelines to follow to keep yourself out of trouble later.

1. If possible, do not touch injured persons.

If an airbag deploys, if a person in unconscious, if a person is stuck, or if somebody is bleeding, it's natural to attempt to remedy the situation and to desire to get get them out of danger. However, accidents, especially those caused at high speeds, can often cause unseen injuries that can be made worse if you attempt to move somebody who is injured. If you feel you must help, it's best to look for a round-about solution. For example, if a person is thrown from a vehicle and lying in the road, he is then in danger of being struck again by oncoming traffic. Normally, you would simply move the body out of harm's way. Instead, you can park your own car to make a barricade for other drivers to go around. 

If you do move a person and their injuries are worsened because of your actions, in some cases you can be civilly liable for part of their injuries -- yes, you could be sued for trying to help. Some states have Good Samaritan laws that protect those with helpful intentions, but they do not always apply. 

2. Ask before providing assistance.

In some cases, the victims of a car accidents are conscious and able to ask for or decline help. If the person is able to speak, always ask before you lend a hand. You need to get their express permission to do what you are planning to do. For example, if a person is stuck in the car and cannot release their own seat belt, you might say, "I am going to cut your seatbelt off. Is that okay?" Wait for them to respond before proceeding. This way, if you come under legal scrutiny later, you have a viable defense. If the person is deaf, mute, or does not speak your language, be especially cautious, because implied consent is more difficult to prove. 

3. Hold off on the first aid.

Even if you know advanced first aid, you should not jump into action to provide first response measures unless absolutely necessary. For example, on a busy highway, even minor accidents are easily reported, and response teams are not far away. Your actions simply will not be necessary and can even hinder paramedics who need to get people to the hospital in a timely manner. Things like splints for broken bones, shock positions, and wrapping wounds are just not needed from good Samaritan witnesses.

If you slow emergency response teams with unnecessary first aid, you could be liable for injuries that worsened due to your actions. The only situations where your own first aid skills may be needed in accident response include:

If the victim is not breathing and has no pulse. Then resuscitation efforts are needed, as time of of the essence when it comes to assisted breathing and CPR. Even then, try not to move the head, neck, or spine if possible, as even minor head, neck, and back injuries can be become severe if the victim is not properly handled.

The area of the accident occurs in a remote location, where needed help is not available. Then, of course, stopping bleeding and temporarily setting bones is essential until help arrives.

The severity of the injury is so great that the victim will not live until help arrives. For example, if someone is bleeding profusely from a severed artery, slowing the flow can be essential to saving their life. 

Contact an auto accident attorney for more information.