If You See An Accident, Do You Have to Stop and Help?

An Ohio man has been arrested for being the exact opposite of a good Samaritan.

When Paul Pelton saw a car crash into a house/tree/SUV combination after speeding over some train tracks and losing control, he pulled out his cell phone. A normal person would have called 911 at this point, but Pelton decided to start filming, even opening the car’s doors to get a better shot.

Neighbors came to help and pulled the driver and passenger (who died at the hospital) out. Pelton then posted the video he took to Facebook and tried to sell it to news stations.

The police then came and arrested Pelton on charges of “vehicle trespass” – entering the vehicle without permission. If there was a law against general dickbaggery they should have charged him with that too, but there’s not. But this case raises another issue entirely: should Pelton be charged with a crime for not helping the people in the car, but instead filming them?

Let’s think about it this way: Pelton sees an accident happen. The accident happens in such a way that any reasonable, sane person would be able to figure out that involved serious injuries. In that moment Pelton has three choices (normal functional adult humans really only have two):

  • Choice 1: Do something. This could be simply calling 911, or be as drastic as ripping the doors off the car in an adrenaline-fueled ecstasy of heroism and carrying the car’s occupants to safety.
  • Choice 2: Do nothing. Drive away, go home, and watch Dancing With the Stars.
  • Choice 3: Pull out the cell phone and film the people in the car while they groan and bleed.

Pelton, of course, went with Choice 3. It’s a dickbag move, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegal. Let’s talk abotu the three choices a bit more.

Legality of Choice 1

If your instinct is to go with this option, congratulations on being a normal functional adult. Yes there’s no law against helping people, so don’t ask that question. There’s even a law that protects you from liability if you try to help someone in an emergency. So if you break a person’s wrist while dragging their unconscious body away from a burning car, you’re in the clear.

Legality of Choice 2

The real question here is whether or not a person has a legal duty to stop and help if they see an accident happen. In legalese this is called the “duty to rescue.

Ohio, like most states, doesn’t actually have a law that makes driving away from the scene of a car crash illegal (assuming you weren’t involved in the crash in any way). By my reading only three states, Minnesota, Vermont, and Rhode Island, have laws that make it a crime for someone to not render aid to a person when they know they were exposed to grave physical harm through an accident. Other states make it a crime when the physical harm comes from the commission of a crime or involves a child.

A good run down of the states that have these laws can be found here.

Legality of Choice 3

My reading of Ohio’s laws would only make this a crime if the videotaper discovered a dead body and failed to report it to law enforcement. Here’s the actual law:

No person who discovers the body or acquires the first knowledge of the death of a person shall fail to report the death immediately to a physician whom the person knows to be treating the deceased for a condition from which death at such time would not be unexpected, or to a law enforcement officer, an ambulance service, an emergency squad, or the coroner in a political subdivision in which the body is discovered, the death is believed to have occurred, or knowledge concerning the death is obtained.

The way I read this law there was no duty to call the authorities unless Pelton got to the car and discovered one or both of the occupants had died. But, even though there may not be a law that makes videotaping an accident instead of helping a crime, it’s definitely a pretty horrible thing to do.

Should all states have laws that make it a crime to not stop and help people in an accident? That’s another question for another day.