Protecting ‘Good Samaritans’ at road accidents

by Trang Chu Minh, TrustLaw | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 16 December 2016 09:03 GMT

Babu Babu / Reuters

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Will new legislation help reduce India’s sky-high rate of road fatalities? 

A staggering 17 people an hour on average are killed on India’s roads. The country has the highest number of road accident casualties in the world – more than 1.34 million lives have been lost in the past decade.

Yet 50% of these deaths could have been prevented, according to estimates by the Law Commission of India, if passersby were less hesitant about providing immediate assistance.

In the absence of established emergency medical services, ‘Good Samaritans’ can play a game-changing role in saving lives. But a national study conducted by SaveLIFE Foundation (SLF), an NGO dedicated to improving road safety and emergency care in India, has revealed that three out of four people are reluctant to offer help to road victims for fear of repercussions.

Procedural hurdles, unnecessary police questioning and legal issues are all preventing bystanders from offering vital aid.

In response to this alarming issue, a team of lawyers, led by Dechert, produced a comparative study of Good Samaritan laws in Europe, the US and Asia, to support SLF in its advocacy efforts to pass new legislation in India and protect first responders to road accidents.

In 2012, SLF filed a “Writ Petition” in the Supreme Court of India, seeking a framework for protection of Good Samaritans to safeguard bystanders and passersby from police harassment, detention at hospitals and prolonged court proceedings. The following year TrustLaw connected SLF to lawyers from Dechert, Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal and Intel, to conduct a review of best practice legislations in England and Wales, France, China and the US as a basis for a Good Samaritan model law for India.

The report found that all these countries offer civil and/or criminal liability protection for first responders to victims of road accidents provided that the requisite statutory requirements are met.

This formed the basis of SLF’s advocacy for legal reform within India’s constitutional framework, strengthened the NGO’s case with policymakers, parliamentarians and Supreme Court judges, and helped inform and influence public opinion.

Following extensive advocacy efforts, including a petition to the Health Minister of India, a Private Member Bill in parliament and a national consultation, in May 2015, the government published detailed guidelines on the protection of Good Samaritans. Legal safeguards included the right to anonymity, immunity from civil or criminal liabilities and protection from having hospital costs forced upon them if the victim is unable to foot the bill. 

In January 2016, the government released a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to ensure the fair and just treatment of Good Samaritans during police and court procedures. The SOPs called for formal compensation and reward schemes for bystanders, and put a strict ban on any form of intimidation or harassment.  On 30 March 2016, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision that made the guidelines and SOPs legally binding on all States and Union Territories of India.

Karnataka was the first state to give legislative backing to the court judgment and enshrine the Good Samaritan guidelines into law. In November 2016, the Legislative Assembly approved the Karnataka Good Samaritan and Medical Professional (Protection and Regulation during Emergency Situations) Bill, which is now waiting for the President of India’s assent. The Bill offers unprecedented protection to both first responders to road accidents and medical professionals.

“The new law is just the first step on the long and winding road to ensure that no life is lost for want of basic life-saving care,” says Piyush Tewari, Founder & CEO of SaveLIFE Foundation.  “We are continuing our advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court judgment is implemented across the country and at the same time we are working with more states to enact state-specific Good Samaritan Law.”

SaveLIFE is also advocating for a stronger road safety law in India and conducts dedicated training for emergency first responders in the absence of an efficient state-driven medical response.