Backpackers Abandon Seriously Injured Friend in Grand Canyon After Calling Sheriff

In torts, we discuss the “no duty to rescue” doctrine in torts. Under the common law, you are not legally required to assist a person in peril if you had no responsibility for their injury. A recent incident in the Grand Canyon National Park raised some of the underlying issues that we debate in our discussion of this doctrine. A 63-year-old hiker was rescued after he was injured in a fall and his friends left him behind to continue their “backpacking adventure.”

The five friends were backpacking on the North Rim of the park when the man fell and seriously injured his shoulder. They were on their third or fourth day out and had another three or four days planned. One of the backpackers called the sheriff’s office. They then left the seriously injured man.

The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue brought out a chopper but could not land in the immediate area due to the dark. Rescuers, therefore, had to land a quarter of a mile away and hike into the location where they found the man near a creek. Due to the rough terrain, the rescuers said that they were very fortunate to find the man.

The man was stabilized and carried back to the helicopter. The sheriff’s office was clearly not pleased that the backpackers not only “continued on their backpacking adventures – leaving the injured hiker behind alone,” but also took the Apple device used to contact rescuers. They could not reach the injured person.

We have previously discussed the failure to rescue or assist others. These cases often shock the conscience for many of us. Even transit workers have been excused of a duty to rescue.

The no duty rule was the basis for the famous ruling in Yania v. Bigan, 397 Pa. 316, 155 A.2d 343 (1959) where a man watched another man drown without taking any efforts to assist him. Even though Bigan dared Yania to jump into the hole full of water, the court found that this made no difference since these taunts were “directed to an adult in full possession of all his mental faculties.”

On the rule itself, the Court wrote:

Lastly, it is urged that Bigan failed to take the necessary steps to rescue Yania from the water. The mere fact that Bigan saw Yania in a position of peril in the water imposed upon him no legal, although a moral, obligation or duty to go to his rescue unless Bigan was legally responsible, in whole or in part, for placing Yania in the perilous position: Restatement, Torts, § 314. Cf: Restatement, Torts, § 322. The language of this Court in Brown v. French, 104 Pa. 604, 607, 608, is apt: “If it appeared that the deceased, by his own carelessness, contributed in any degree to the accident which caused the loss of his life, the defendants ought not to have been held to answer for the consequences resulting from that accident. … He voluntarily placed himself in the way of danger, and his death was the result of his own act. … That his undertaking was an exceedingly reckless and dangerous one, the event proves, but there was no one to blame for it but himself. He had the right to try the experiment, obviously dangerous as it was, but then also upon him rested the consequences of that experiment, and upon no one else; he may have been, and probably was, ignorant of the risk which he was taking upon himself, or knowing it, and trusting to his own skill, he may have regarded it as easily superable. But in either case, the result of his ignorance, or of his mistake, must rest with himself – and cannot be charged to the defendants”. The complaint does not aver any facts which impose upon Bigan legal responsibility for placing Yania in the dangerous position in the water and, absent such legal responsibility, the law imposes on Bigan no duty of rescue.

Recognizing that the deceased Yania is entitled to the benefit of the presumption that he was exercising due care and extending to appellant the benefit of every well pleaded fact in this complaint and the fair inferences arising therefrom, yet we can reach but one conclusion: that Yania, a reasonable and prudent adult in full possession of all his mental faculties, undertook to perform an act which he knew or should have known was attended with more or less peril and it was the performance of that act and not any conduct upon Bigan’s part which caused his unfortunate death.

Europeans have always criticized our rule and many countries have long recognize a duty to rescue — though usually that obligation ends with any physical risk. Feminists in the United States have also called for the end of the rule and the emphasis on a collective obligation as opposed to the intense individual autonomy model underlying the rule. Even Judge Richard Posner has argued for tort liability for the failure to carry out low-cost rescues.

In the most recent case, any duty to rescue this man was based on the bonds of friendship and decency rather than torts. As a lifelong backpacker and hiker, I have assisted injured hikers in past years. I also was rescued once from a remote location. I would not even think of leaving an injured hiker even on a less remote trail. Even if another hiker insisted that his friends continue on their hike, they should refuse and leave at least one hiker behind. (Two are better if they are going to continue down a remote trail after the rescue). Not only may an injured hiker not be mentally competent to make such a decision, but every hiker has to decide independently what the situation demands.

I am assuming that the friends attempted to make the man comfortable and they did ensure that the police were notified. I also understand you often have limited time to make the hike to the next designated camping spot. That means that you may have to lose a day but it is better than leaving a disabled elderly hiker in a remote location as evening approaches.

Yet, they are not under any obligation under the common law or state law to render aid. There is also no law preventing them from abandoning a fallen hiker. The law cannot make us better people. The responsibility of these fellow hikers was purely moral rather than legal. These hikers left those moral considerations at the creek with this injured hiker when they decided to abandon him in favor of continuing their adventure.

86 thoughts on “Backpackers Abandon Seriously Injured Friend in Grand Canyon After Calling Sheriff”

  1. While this case is sad and an example of people at least calling for help, there’s an even more egregious case of a thirteen-year-old girl being assaulted by a mentally unstable woman inside a fast food restaurant — while all the other customers stood around and took video recordings. None of the other customers intervened or called the police. Can humanity sink any lower?

      1. Larry:

        “As I have often said, ‘You cannot legislate morality!’, no matter how much and how hard you try!”
        Well, you’ve been wrong often, then. All Western criminal and much of Western civil law is merely Judea-Christian morality enforced by governmental power. Murder (“Thou shallt not kill”); Robbery (“Thous ahlt not steal and …covert thy neighbors”), Perjury (“bearing flase witness”) and the list goes on. Somewhere some ahistorical muddlebrain coined this canard and those similarly situated spout it like Paul to the Romans. It’s just plain wrong. As far back as 1772 BC, Hammurabbi said the purpose of law is ” to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak.”

        And who wants to argue with the originator of codified law?

    1. “None of the other customers intervened . . .”

      These days, depending on where you are, that’s a tough one. Intervene and you risk being arrested by a Leftist DA for intervening too strenuously. Such are the consequences of prosecutors criminalizing doing the right thing. (Incidentally, employees did call the police.)

  2. Maybe this is the mentality of the current age, fostered by social media. Need something? Make a call. Need food? call door dash and it shows up. Need a kitchen appliance? Log onto Amazon and it shows up at your door. Over and done with, no need to think any more than that.

    So . . . need a friend to be rescued from a life-threatening situation? Call a sheriff, move on, it’ll be taken care of. No need to think about it any further.

  3. If the injured guy insisted they continue on without him, I might be able to understand.
    But not leaving the phone used to call the sheriff? That was a not so bright idea.
    And leaving the guy in the dark, not being present to help EMS to reach him? Another not so bright idea.
    The upside is, this case will be an excellent example of what NOT to do for a backpacking class or wilderness EMS.
    If I were in that situation, with that many people, I would of made an impromptu litter, and carried him to a location where the helo could land. As the helo approached, use flash lights to guide them in.

  4. And in news that really matters, 30 year mortgage rates hit 7.31% today in an attempt to artificially lower inflation. The inflation that was created by printing $6T.
    Gavin Newsome says it’s been a “master class”.

    $250k home

    2.99% – 364k

    7.31% – 593k

    Difference – 229k

    But but but Trump raised your taxes.

    Anybody here ever paid 229k in taxes?

    1. Tom,
      Read an article awhile ago about “golden handcuffs.” People who bought a home with a really low interest rate, say 3.125%, now cannot afford to buy another home at that 7% interest rate unless they are paying cash or going from a really high market to a much lower one.
      Also read recently that people selling in CA are taking up to a $100k loss.
      In other but related news, the cost of food, gas, rent, utilities remain persistently higher than in previous years. On average, Americans are planning on spending 39% less this holiday season.

      1. Record high credit card debt and rising poverty. Real mean household income down two years running.

        Yep, this economy is booming.

  5. Under the common law, you are not legally required to assist a person in peril if you had no responsibility for their injury.

    But if you start a rescue, you can’t quit part-way through. The theory being that others who might have undertaken the rescue saw you doing it and decided not to. An interesting question to me is whether these so-called “friends” started a rescue by calling the sheriff’s department.

    1. You can quit part-way through without legal liability if you do not leave the person in a worse position than he would have been had you not started to help. Here, they did not. The “friends” clearly left the person in a better position than if they had not rendered assistance by calling for help.

      They are still world-class jerks. I was on a hike to Everest Base Camp several years ago, and one member of a group started to show signs of altitude sickness. His “friends” sent him back down the trail by himself to get to a lower altitude. He died by himself on the way down.

      I generally support the “no duty to rescue” position (mostly on practical grounds) when dealing with strangers. But in this situation, the people involved were part of a common enterprise, where it seems to me recognition of a legal duty to assist in such circumstances would not be unduly onerous.

  6. The law cannot make us better people.

    The original meaning of “you can’t legislate morality.”

      1. Hmmm? Only by coincidence. I often see this confusion. Some immoral behavior is also illegal (e.g., murder), and is thereby legally punishable. But this is merely a common coincidence. Immoral behavior is often detrimental to social order, which therefore compels laws against it. But not always. Maybe not even mostly. Pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth might be immoral, but society hasn’t been compelled to make them illegal. We like freedom. So OK, “the law can punish the immoral,” but it usually should not. It needs a much, much stronger reason than just immorality.

  7. Very glad that the Bigan decision wasn’t followed when I was in the Army many years ago or I wouldn’t be here. Thank you, Jonathan, for an excellent article.

  8. I come from a background based upon NEVER leaving a fallen person behind…..even at mortal risk to oneself.

    Those who left him behind are despicable beyond contempt.

    Who deserts a friend in such a situation?

    They should have provided aid and comfort to the injured guy….moved him to a site suitable for landing by the helicopter…..built a fire if possible or had signaling devices ready. If it required camping in the open… be it.

    In this case….are we not our brother’s keeper?

  9. “Friends”??? Sounds like mountain climbers in the Himalayas.

    I’ll share my water, I’ll share my rations, I’ll carry your gear, I’ll carry you. I will never leave a fallen comrade. Life lesson 52 years ago Draft Army.

  10. Ive missed appointments hepling people in far less dire predicaments. Usually those of limited abilities. Some 30 year old guy with a flat, can fend for himself. If he can’t, it is very much a learning moment.

    Maybe its just my age. But. I do group events because the dynamic of he group, and the sharing of the experience, is the fun. If the group breaks up, the fun is gone.

    These are people that have not figured out the meaning of life. “be of service to others”

  11. Police are not required to protect you.
    Offer aide after the fact…but not legally required to lift a finger to prevent harm.

  12. Those that left the hiker inured after a fall, left him to open to wildlife and temperatures in the dark that may have injured him further ! These were no “friends” .

  13. Another glaring example of the “All about me” society we live in. I would expect this from a younger crowd, but people in their 60’s- you would think would have been brought up right.

    1. Kitty Genovese (sp?) was stabbed to death back in the 60’s over a long period of time, while people who could hear her screaming for help didn’t bother phoning police. Today those people would have sprang to their phones – hoping to shoot some video of the attack that might make go viral. It was as newsworthy back then as this is today.

      There is nothing new about this in our society – cellphone instant communication and social media love of viral video just makes it far more noticeable.

      BTW, impressive that Turley found a subject that the resident Soviet Democrat apparatchik and watcher, Anonymous, hasn’t put in an appearance to call Turley a hypocrite, supporting racism and censorship, etc. This is a subject that Anonymous doesn’t feel needs condemning as “Trumpian”???? Or is somebody going to respond with “Wait for it…”

  14. Dear Professor Turley, although this article is written in the first person I cannot believe you actually wrote it yourself. It is full of poor grammar, awkward constructions, and outright typos. It’s entirely understandable that you would have staff draft your blog postings, but you or someone with good knowledge of English should review before going to “press”. I’m a huge fan of yours so please take this in the spirit with which it was intended. A friendly suggestion.

    1. Although we are off-topic here, I want to add my wholehearted agreement.

      I’ve been following Prof. Turley’s blog for just a few months, and have been both surprised and dismayed by the number of articles that appear to have had little, if any, editing. Based on his television appearances, I became a fan of Prof. Turley precisely because of his measured and thoughtful use of language. For me, as a non-lawyer, taking taking such care with the language helps clarify his opinions as well as some of the more arcane legal principles.

      Recently, I’ve begun to wonder if the professor is dictating his articles into a computer program, as I’ve seen a similar deterioration in the quality of writing in other writers I follow. Regardless, because I value Prof. Turley’s insights I will continue the struggle to make sense of a poorly written sentence (or paragraph)—at least for the time being.

      Lastly, I’m adding a friendly reminder to your friendly suggestion: when writing for the public, it’s important to allow sufficient time for both the writing AND the editing. Readers appreciate good writing and, frankly, deserve it in exchange for their time and/or money.

      1. For me, as a non-lawyer, taking taking (sic) such care with the language helps…

        You trolls are so boring boring with predictable talking points

        1. What got your panties in a bunch? CKay provided a well-considered, thoughtful and civil comment. You, sir, are the troll, as your response proves.

        2. Ouch! How embarrassing! “Physician, heal thyself” or should it be “People in glass houses”? Either way, I am duly chastened. Obviously, I should have taken an extra minute to proof my post. I would point out, however, that unlike the professor, I am not paid to write so don’t have the assistance of a proofreader or editor, staff the professor was praising just yesterday in his column commemorating the 75,000,000 views that Res Ipsa has received. (BTW, congrats, Professor!)

          Thank you for reading my comment so closely. The typo aside, I hope you found the rest worthwhile.

  15. “friends”? I am sure his friends will tall us all how great they are…probably all own “rescue’ dogs, vote Democrat, etc

    1. Guy, I love your line about them all having rescue dogs! This sounds like a selfish group of self-important jerks.

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