Photo:PTI
Photo:PTI

Opinion | Good Samaritan Law: protecting the ‘good’ in us

In a medical emergency, the most crucial role is played by the person at the scene of the accident

Five months ago, in August 2018, Jineesh Jerone, a fisherman was busy saving lives during the Kerala floods, which wreaked havoc in the state. He along with his friends saved nearly a hundred lives by rescuing and transporting stranded people to safety. A month later in September, while riding a two-wheeler with his friend, he was run over by a speeding lorry. As he lay bleeding on the highway near his home in Kerala’s Poonthura, many passersby stopped but no one came forward to help him. By the time help arrived, it was too late and Jineesh, a true Good Samaritan, was dead for want of a Good Samaritan at the scene of his accident.

The sad truth is that Jineesh is among hundreds of people who die every day in road crashes in India due to lack of immediate medical help.

As per figures from the ministry of road transport and highways, the number of people killed in road crashes in India in 2017 was 147,913 or 405 deaths every day. Most importantly, the 201st report of the Law Commission of India states that 50% of those killed in such crashes could have been saved if timely medical care had been provided to them. In the entire process of rendering emergency medical response, the most crucial role is played by the person at the scene of the crash—the bystander or passerby. Not only can such people invoke the official systems of care by making that all-important phone call but they can also play a game-changing role in saving lives of victims by providing them first-aid or simply through words of comfort. In many areas, where police or ambulance response may be weak, such persons can even help rush the victim to the nearest hospital. Such persons are rightfully called Good Samaritans and can play a game-changing role in saving lives.

In 2016, in a landmark judgement in the case of SaveLIFE Foundation versus Union of India, the Supreme Court instituted a Good Samaritan Law to insulate such persons from legal and procedural hassles that have traditionally followed the act of helping an injured person. The more injured the person, the more hassles and harassment a Good Samaritan had to face. It is highly likely that people who stopped to see Jineesh’s plight on the highway were not all apathetic. Many of them may have wanted to help him but were too afraid of the intimidation and harassment they may have to face. But they shouldn’t have been afraid given the Good Samaritan Law, except that they were most likely unaware of the existence of their new rights as Good Samaritans.

In fact, 84% of the people recently surveyed by SaveLIFE Foundation across 11 cities in India were unaware of the Good Samaritan Law. The study surveyed over 3,600 people, including relevant stakeholders like police personnel and medical practitioners. It was found that even though general willingness to help road crash victims has increased from 26% in 2013 to 88% in 2018, yet in terms of concrete action, only 29% were willing to escort the victim to the hospital, 28% were willing to call an ambulance and only 12% said that they would call the police. Challenges such as lack of awareness about rights and fear of police investigations or other legal hassles continue to keep a majority of people from coming forward.

Evidently, a massive gap exists between the law and its on-ground implementation. The law explicitly instructs police and hospitals to allow Good Samaritans to keep their anonymity and minimize procedural hassle. However, over half (57%) of the medical professionals surveyed and almost two-thirds (64%) of the police officials interviewed still ask for the personal details of the people bringing the injured to hospitals. The study also revealed that most of the health professionals and police personnel interviewed had not received any priming on implementing the Good Samaritan Law. None of the hospitals and police stations surveyed had displayed a charter of rights for Good Samaritans, as mandated by the Supreme Court judgement.

As part of a study, a total of 235 Good Samaritans who have helped road crash victims since the institution of Good Samaritan Law in March 2016 were also surveyed. The Supreme Court judgement in the Good Samaritan Law clearly states that “concerned Police Official(s) shall allow the Good Samaritan to leave, after having informed the Police about an injured person on the road, and no further questions shall be asked if the Good Samaritan doesn’t desire to be a witness in the matter". The study revealed that 59% of the surveyed Good Samaritans reported that they were detained by the police, despite the law.

To address these gaps, state governments must actively translate the judgement into state-specific Good Samaritan laws in order to establish implementation mechanisms for the law, including effective grievance redressal systems and reward and recognition schemes for Good Samaritans. The state of Karnataka recently took this step, proving that states can indeed proactively work to protect their Good Samaritans.

Jineesh Jerone deserved a chance to live. Had bystanders known about the Good Samaritan Law, about the choice of keeping their anonymity, and about a dedicated grievance redressal body to implement the law, Jineesh’s tragic death could have been avoided and a Good Samaritan would have been recognized for that.

Piyush Tewari is founder and CEO of SaveLIFE Foundation

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