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. And if you do stay behind and try to help as best you can and then you are sued because you were not a professional doctor or medic – what then? The laws in America are basically the laws of the kings in Europe – as a non-royal you will never own the land, we’ll let you pretend that you own it. If you purchase the land and never make it better, your taxes will stay low but grow a tree or pour a sidewalk we will tax you to death and don’t give me that bull that ‘you are innocent until proven guilty.’ There has always been two justice systems in this country the one for you and the one for me. Shakespeare said best but I think he should of mentioned the pink haired nose ringed tatted gradeschool teachers in with the lawyers.

    1. There is a “Good Samaritan” law that protects you if the care you provide would be considered reasonable by reasonable people. In other words, if you stop to help someone who’s bleeding from a gash in the belly and you put pressure on the wound to slow the bleeding, you’re fine. If you decide the best way to stop him from bleeding from a belly wound would be to stab him in the chest so there’s less blood to go to the belly, you could be in trouble.

  2. Why is it not surprising that a government agency would materially mis-state the facts in a way that advances the agency’s interests and preferred narrative? There was a time when we could accept most government factual statements at face value. Once lost, credibility is really hard to regain.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong … but I recall these ‘Good Samaritan’ cases from law school as standing for the proposition that if the Samaritan rendered any aid at all, he must not abandon the efforts — sort of an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ rationale.

    Arguably, the ‘friends’ here (or at least the one who called) could be said to have attempted some sort of aid … so it’s incumbent upon him (them) to continue the course … 

  4. “Sheriff’s office misstated the facts in their original post, which has been corrected by the hiker himself.”

    In light of this update, I expect the unnamed hikers to successfully sue the sheriff’s office and some lawyer in a robe to magically find that the taxpayers must make them wealthier.

  5. UPDATE: This incident didn’t happen as reported, unfortunately. The Sheriff’s office misstated the facts in their original post, which has been corrected by the hiker himself.
    His group had already separated by 3-4 miles (he chose to go on an off-shoot hike with a buddy) when the incident occurred. He nor his friend had a satellite-capable phone, so he urged his other friend to run ahead and join the group so they could make the call. He praised his friends for their actions. Source:

    1. If anything, this column and comments illustrate how quick we are to judge without knowing all the facts. The old maxim “believe none of what you hear and half of what you see” holds true today more than ever in our hyper-critical society – especially at first blush.

  6. Another, and perhaps more apt, legal framework is to consider whether the members of a social group engaged in a common activity have a legal duty to aid a member of the group whose injury is a foreseeable consequence of that activity. It would seem perfectly reasonable to conclude, as a matter of law, that there is such a duty.

    Whether the other members of the group breached that duty is a question of fact. And, if we assume liability, there is the question of damages and causation. What damages were caused by that breach?

    Based on the facts presented, we don’t have enough to tell. Activities like this carry an inherent risk and provide limited options, especially when the group is three days’ hike from a trailhead. And it isn’t like a rescue team is assembled and standing by 24/7 waiting for a call.

    Groups often reach a general understanding of what they will do when something goes wrong. Which need to be adjusted on the fly based on the specific situation. Or as Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

    It would be really interesting to hear the full back story.

    1. To argue the point of, “Social Group, as a nexus to their duty, would require demonstration of organizational structure (dues, membership card, regular meetings, etc) Since there was no mention of a formal club, this would be a difficult association to establish after the fact. The revision of the original report, at first consideration, seems a logical and believable event-chain and therefore answers the critical questions of both the legal and moral factors under consideration.

      1. For the purpose of establishing a legal duty, why is it important that the group have a formal organizational structure. Isn’t a group of friends that decide to go on a hike together a social group that gives rise to duties among the group members?

  7. I think that it is too early to draw conclusions from the given facts. As an avid and older backpacker, there are any number of considerations that would factor into the group decision. The group called the sheriff for a rescue and the man was rescued. The group, it appears, could not provide much further service. This assumption seems to be justified all of the “what if” discussion not coming to pass. We don’t know what the injured man told his companions. If it was me being injured and I knew that a rescue was on its way with coordinates given, I could imagine the injured hiker not wishing to cut short this trip on his account for his companions but rather insisting that his companions continue on. Right now we don’t know. Drawing conclusions with the current dataset is premature.

  8. Lord Moulton, a British jurist, in or about 1920, commented on the idea of obedience to the unenforceable; that law alone is insufficient for human beings to be able to have a workable society. There must be civility, morality and ethics. It is plain to see that this country has become a society of selfish and arrogant and existentialist narcissists and abandoning one’s friend in need is a flagrant example of this attitude that has found its way throughout all segments of our society. I believe it can be traced to a lack of belief in God and His Truth and His Reason which, to me, can be summarized in the maxim expressed in Leviticus 19:18 to Love Thy Neighbor as Thy Self. The philosopher Spinoza seemingly viewed this idea as the glue that holds society together. Indeed, it is the essence of the philosophy of obedience to the unenforceable…civility, ethics and morality. Well, as TS Eliot expressed, this is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. God pity the United States of America.

    1. A god is not required for a life affirming moral code. Many philosophers have developed such codes that would facilitate a
      just, free, rationally based society.
      God and the attendant codes are more enforcement mechanisms that are meant to unify people under one set of moral principles.
      It can also act as a control method to keep people in line.
      And with the multiple contradictions and intolerances contained therein my view is that the god based morality is not sufficient to create the society you say you want .
      All of the “good” parts of religious based morality can be achieved without resorting to the elf on the shelf watching us all the time, while the “bad” bits can be left behind.

      1. Robbie-
        I may be of some interest to you, if you haven’t already done so, to research Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch”, around which is built the theoretical “Super Human”, (roughly abused as “Superman”) as a panacea to the need to inculcate religion-free social stability. The assumption, of course, was that such an entity would be self-directed toward good and innately moral decision-making and therefore, as you put it, no need for the “Elf on a shelf”. However, the “good” parts of religion you see as achievable without external influence, appear to be sorely missing in our social clime without the essential guideposts to instill that which, contrary to your thesis, does not come naturally to man. That we have, even as beings at the top of the food chain, finite intellectual capacities, suggests there is likely much we don’t understand about things outside that limited intellectual grasp. And, and as an extension of these thoughts, the separate debate about “Intelligent Design” doesn’t have to be a religiously based dispute, yet could still be a dialogue around the root of the complexity of DNA and the origin of animal and plant organisms. The philosopher and their visions of the ideal will always sit in the overseer’s chair, far removed from the risk of the streets, but the billions of whom they oversee are not so insulated.
        So, to roughly quote a wiser head than mine, “I will not argue the existence of God, but will appeal for the NEED of the existence of God.”

  9. Still doesn’t compare to wilfully ignoring the hundreds of J6ers who are incarcerated in solitary confinement, beaten regularly, and still under absurd Covid masking restrictions, as Turley does. These hikers left their friend to live or die. They bear the moral responsibility. Those who could speak out about the appalling actions of this appalling Fourth Reich regime, and choose not to, bear a million times more responsibility than these hikers.

  10. Turley: your discussion left out the “assumption of duty” doctrine: From John Grisvold: Generally, pursuant to the voluntary undertaking theory of liability, “one who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another is subject to liability for bodily harm caused to the other by one’s failure to exercise due care in the performance of the undertaking.” It’s not clear to me what, if anything, the other hikers could or should have been able to do for this man. What was the nature of his injuries? You say it was a shoulder injury–but that’s a very broad definition. Were any of the hikers medically trained? Did they have any medical supplies? What if he had a fracture of a bone and they moved him? He might be able to claim that moving him displaced the fracture and caused nerve damage, and/or made healing more difficult and/or left him with permanent impairment he might not otherwise have incurred. They would be vulnerable to legal liability to such a claim if they tried to treat him. It also appears that the helicopter wouldn’t have been able to get to him whether they had stayed or left. Further, it appears that he’s OK. You seem to be trying to make the point that something the other hikers failed to do harmed the man in some manner. That’s not clearly the case based on the facts you provided.

    Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t leave an injured person until help arrived, but I am medically trained. Even so, I wouldn’t attempt to treat a shoulder injury on my own volition. I would have kept him quiet, shaded him from the sun, provided water and stayed with him. Another question: WHY did he fall? Did he stumble? Had he been lightheaded? Had he failed to eat that day? Did he fail to take his insulin if he was a diabetic? Did he have blood sugar or blood pressure problems that made him woozy? There may well be more to this story than meets the eye.

  11. Rather than discuss the fine points of the law, I would rather say that this incident is illustrative of the decay of our moral culture as a society. Boomers (of which I am, unfortunately one) were the first narcissistic, selfish and poorly educated lot to come along. It has gotten far worse as these self-satisfying and entitled bunch raised children who are far worse in their lack of a set moral core. We are witnessing the generations of Me, Myself and I.

    1. I would say you are off by a generation. While there are always exceptions, Boomers are not the “first narcissistic, selfish and poorly educated lot to come along”. However, we did raise our kids to fit that description by providing participation trophies, and coddling spoiled rotten kids. So while our generation may be responsible for starting the trend, it was due to our failure to instill a sense of responsibility and empathy in the generation that followed us.

  12. Jonathan: Ah, the “Good Samaritan” rule–the duty to rescue someone injured or in distress. As a personal matter, I would make every effort to assist an injured hiker. On the other hand, if a person (say DJT) was drowning in a lake I would be conflicted. I don’t know how to swim. For me “swimming’ is staying alive when you are in the water! Besides, there would be at least six Secret Service agents who would jump in the water to save the former president. Problem solved. The SS has a legal duty to rescue.

    On the other hand, does society have, at least, a moral duty to “rescue” the homeless? California thinks so. Gov. Newsom is investing $12 billion to create housing for the state’s homeless. In Mississippi, a “red” state, they are spending a paltry $6.5 million on the homeless. Shows the difference between how “blue” and “red” states deal with the moral imperative that housing is a fundamental human right. That’s clear in the UN Charter and other international agreements–to which the US us a signatory.

    1. That $12bn is over 2 years, so $6bn/yr. Good for them! Considering the scope of their problem, I hope it’s enough.

      Mississippi has about 1,500 homeless people statewide. California has about 170,000, over 100 times as many as Mississippi, though its total population is only about 10-ish times greater. I would submit that there has to be a significant difference in how each state copes with its homelessness issue just on the basis of the magnitude alone, without getting into differences in cost of living, state policies like housing moratoria that increase or decrease (or don’t affect) homelessness rates, and incentive structures.

      Citing the UN on what does and doesn’t constitute a human right is pretty rich, IMO. As is citing what California says it’s going to do versus what it actually does do, both by design/neglect (in the same way as the federal “Inflation Reduction Act” was even public admitted intentionally not to do anything to reduce inflation) and through the action of unintended consequences.

      1. Well, housing is only one facet of the issue. To concentrate on the housing portion is like saying housing is the most important facet of terminal cancer, say.

      2. If you think California has ONLY 170,000 homeless you are living in a dream world. It way more than that!

    2. Dennis: you brought up “Good Samaritan” laws, which are an exception to the assumption of duty tort theory. Under such laws, there is protection from liability for good-faith efforts to assist someone. However, the details of the protection provided vary by state and circumstances: The law in a given state may only apply to professional health care providers or off-duty first responders, or when someone is in imminent peril of death or very serious injury (like being unconscious in a burning automobile, for example) and even then, if the conduct of the helper is wilful and wanton, there could still be liability.

    3. At this time though the “homeless” are out on the street bc they have refused housing. Is the UN in charge of what constitutes suitable housing?

    4. There is no moral imperative that housing is fundamental human right. That’s UN propaganda for fleecing developed nations and their productive citizens. MS is quite right not to massively fund homelessness housing, better to ship them to California. It’s the old adage, you get more of what you tolerate.

    5. Yes, the blue states will deprive American citizens of their earnings in support of persons who broke the law coming to this nation including murderers and rapists.

      There is something wrong with stealing from another to give to a third party who breaks the law. That is Dennis’ way of providing charity. Take from others.

      If you send us your address we will be glad to send you three families to live with you and for you to support.

      What? You don’t want them? You don’t want to give your money? What a hypocrite.

    6. California has approximately 156 times the number of homeless that Mississippi has.

      Mississippi has approximately 1,100 homeless compared to California’s 171,500. Do your math and you’ll find that the “paltry” amount that Mississippi spends per homeless person is precisely what California spends per homeless person.

      And when you consider the cost of living in both states, Mississippi’s funding provides much more. So much for your “red state/blue state” misguided perception.

  13. “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.”
    Well, if they undertake a rescue of the fellow hiker they necessarily undetake a duty and propping him up and calling the high sheriff might qualify for that. Given the duty, the fearful foursome may have to act reasonably under the circumstances. Thus, leaving a seriously injured guy with no means of communication at night might be deemed unreasonable even if the cops are called given the rough terrain and difficulty in locating the guy. I’d take a shot on this case assuming I could prove medically that the delay in rescue or absence of human assitance during the wait proximately caused additional or worse injury which is surely must have done.

    Come on, JT. Bring on that Mohave County jury. Let’s see if their heart matches their wide vistas!!

  14. The other hikers were from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

    “F— dem wounded”

  15. This dilemma also appears in the current “homeless” crisis. Our officials make manic efforts to save them or “put them” in apartments or somewhere, to make them comfortable and rescue them. But did we put them on the streets? They are adults and more or less ended up on the streets bc of their own decisions.

    1. Patricia: does your analysis apply to the homeless veterans suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental problems? What “own decisions” do the homeless make, in your estimation? If you are speaking of substance abuse, this is the result of attempting to self-medicate away emotional problems with which they cannot cope. Many homeless people are seriously mentally ill and have fallen through the cracks of the mental health system, young people escaping from severely dysfunctional families and people with learning disabilities who dropped out of school, can’t hold down a job, have no family support and got in with the wrong crowd. So, according to you, homeless people have chosen to be homeless?

      1. In my analysis, lack of housing is almost irrelevant to the real issues, which you have stated well. Look up the stats on OD deaths and trashed apartments. And along the way, yes, they have made bad choices and continue to make bad choices. When do we say then, you are on your own, but you can’t live on our streets, or you will go to hospital or jail? And how does this square with all of the people like veterans who HAVE taken responsibility for their own state of being? How does it help the street people or the residents to continue this deathly charade?

        1. Not everyone with mental health problems belongs either in jail or in a hospital, but they DO need help. Those who are dangerous to themselves or others should be in a hospital until they can get stabilized on medication, but they have to be followed. Many of them will stop taking the medication because they feel better and they don’t have insight into how the medication keeps them out of trouble and on an even keel.. As a society, we don’t have sufficient resources to meet their needs. Jails aren’t the answer for people with mental problems–it just makes the problem worse, IMHO because they don’t have support, medication, counseling and are put with people who might hurt or exploit them. We also don’t have sufficient resources to help people with learning disabilities become employable, especially for those who don’t have stable families, a church or other source of support to help them. Schools often just kick them out, and since they can’t hold down a regular job, they end up on the street.

          1. I said that we need to say they cannot live on the streets. They can solve it however they want, but they cannot stay there. And right now, many do receive meds, are released, and no one follows them in any meaningful way. How can a nurse find a patient in a city full of tents? So at the end of the line, for any anti-social behavior, some sort of force is required. Jails were the defacto psych hospitals in CA but now Newsom has emptied those out too. Some counties realize this and build treatment into the sentence.

  16. Reminds me of Ralphie and his pals abandoning Flick when his tongue was stuck to the frozen pole. A “triple dog dare” implied no consequent obligation to help Flick.

    Situations change, but people remain the same…

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