Being Good Samaritan means all are neighbours

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 4, 2009 

In last week’s column on doing the right thing regardless of the consequences, I referred to Kent Keith’s helpful book, Do It Anyway. The book, as you will recall, is a development of his list of “Paradoxical Commandments.” His ninth commandment goes: “People really need help, but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.”

A phrase often used for this kind of selfless behaviour in emergency situations is Good Samaritan. Two of my recent columns illustrated Good Samaritan actions with the stories of George Parry (Jan. 7) and Victoria Lenon (Jan. 28).

But there are other stories that focus on the enemies of being a Good Samaritan, enemies such as fear, prejudice, indifference, and stupidity.

Take the case of a California woman, the victim, who successfully sued another woman, the rescuer, for injuries relating to a motor vehicle collision. The rescuer, following in another car, witnessed the collision between the first car and a power pole, and believing the victim’s car was in imminent danger of exploding, pulled the victim from the car and, according to allegations, contributed to the victim’s permanent paralysis. The defense argued that the rescuer enjoyed the protection of California’s Good Samaritan law, but the state Supreme Court disagreed, and in a highly controversial decision, ruled that the Good Samaritan law only applied to professional medical practitioners, which the rescuer was not (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 19, 2008).

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., one afternoon last week, a 31-year-old homeless man was beaten up in front of a grocery store and left unconscious by the curb. Video shows passers-by ignoring him. One person even walked around him for several minutes while loading groceries into a vehicle parked right next to the victim’s body – without offering any assistance. Only after 20 minutes did someone bother to call for an ambulance. The victim subsequently died. I guess those good folks in D.C. had heard about the California court decision on Good Samaritans and didn’t want to leave themselves vulnerable – yeah, right!

Fortunately, here in Alberta we have an Emergency Medical Aid Act that protects ordinary citizens as well as professional health care workers who in good faith attempt to render “medical services or first aid assistance” in such emergencies. Such a Good Samaritan “is not liable for damages for injuries to or the death of that person alleged to have been caused by an act or omission on his or her part in rendering the medical services or first aid assistance, unless it is established that the injuries or death were caused by gross negligence on his or her part.”

At the heart of being a Good Samaritan, of course, lies the principle that we are all neighbours together, and that neighbours look out for each other’s wellbeing. The label comes from a story Jesus told 2,000 years ago, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10.

A lawyer, a Jew, asked Jesus what he had to do to please God. Citing the Law of Moses, Jesus responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

Picking up on the most observable part of the command, the lawyer then asked, “Who is my neighbour?”

Jesus answered with a story about a Jewish gentleman who, while on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, was beaten up, robbed and left for half dead by some thugs. Two fellow Jews – religious leaders, at that – upon seeing the poor chap, willfully ignored him and continued on their way. The urgently needed help came from a most unlikely source: a Samaritan, a member of a community at great odds with mainline Judaism of the day. Moved with pity, he immediately reached out to the victim. He dressed his wounds, transported him to an inn, and paid for his stay.

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asked the lawyer. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer said. To which Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise.”

Going and doing likewise has its risks, of course, and here I’m not just thinking about the victim suing the Good Samaritan. (Even in Alberta, the rescuer must not be guilty of “gross negligence.”) Prudence has its place, too, and there may be times when dialing 9-1-1 is a better option than direct physical involvement.

But we shouldn’t let fear, prejudice, indifference or stupidity prevent us from taking some kind of action to help another in distress – if for no other reason than he or she truly is our neighbour. Thankfully, in our own province the Good Samaritan principle enjoys the protection of law, even for non-professionals.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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