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Duty to Rescue in Civil Law and Common Law: Les Extremes Se Touchent


The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, following a car accident in Paris on 31 August 1997, received worldwide media attention. The place of the accident as well as the circumstances thereof raise a number of legal questions. Of particular interest from a comparative tort law perspective are those aspects of the French enquiry that concern the civil implications of the criminal offence of failing to assist accident victims.2

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1. (“THE SIX QUESTIONED PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE MOTORBIKE RIDER HAVE BEEN PLACED UNDER OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION. On Tuesday 2 September, the six photographers and the motorbike rider from the press questioned at the scene of the fatal accident of the Princess of Wales have been placed under official investigation for “involuntary manslaughter, involuntary wounding and non-assistance of persons in danger” by the Parisian investigating judge, Hervé Stephen, who released all of them having interviewed them on Tuesday afternoon”): Le Monde (édition Internationale, sélection hebdomadaire), Saturday 13 09 1997, p.4.

2. Also part of the official investigation in France is the suspicion of causing bodily harm, but this will not be discussed in this article.

3. Feinberg J., “Failures to Prevent Harm—Easy Rescue and the Bad Samaritan”, in The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law. Vol.1: Harm to Others (1984), p.126 at p.127.

4. Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] A.C. 562; [1932] All E.R. 1.

5. [1969] V.R. 136.

6. idem, pp.140–141 (emph. added). Strictly speaking, this observation by Winneke CJ is dictum but, as it has been pointed out by Davies, it was expressly approved by Australia's High Court in State of Victoria v. Bryar [1970] A.L.R. 809: Davies M., Tons (1995), p.175.

7. (1977) 138 C.L.R. 91.Cf. Barnes v. Hampshire CC [1969] 3 All E.R. 746 (HL).

8. The expression is borrowed from Davies, op. cit. supra n.6, at p.174.

9. Robertson v. Swincer (1989) 52 S.A.S.R. 356, 360, 362.

10. See the discussion in Todd S., “Negligence: The Duty of Care”, in Todd S. T. M. (Ed.), The Law of Torts in New Zealand (1991), p.114 at p.132.

11. The exceptions are Vermont and Minnesota. They are the result of legislative intervention: Lipkin R. J., “Beyond Good Samaritans and Moral Monsters: An Individualistic Justification of the General Legal Duty to Rescue” (19831984) U.C.L.A. L.Rev. 252, 253254.

12. Ibid.

13. [1970] A.C. 1004, 1060.

14. [1997] 2 All E.R. 865, 878 (CA).

15. [1997] 3 All E.R. 897.

16. [1968] 1 All E.R. 1068.

17. See the analysis of foreign criminal provisions in Rudzinski A. W., “The Duty to Rescue: A Comparative Analysis”, in Ratcliffe J. M. (Ed.), The Good Samaritan and the Law (1966), p.91.

18. Law of 25 Oct. 1941, modifying Arts. 228 and 248 of the Penal Code. D. 1941, Législation 533. Belgium, a country in the French legal tradition, did not adopt legislation for the punishment of “culpable abstentions” (“abstentions coupables”) until 1961: Art.422bis of the Belgian Penal Code.

19. Tune A., “The Volunteer and the Good Samaritan”, in Ratcliffe, op. cit. supra n.17, p.43 at p.44.

20. “The Failure to Rescue: A Comparative Study” (1952) 52 Col.L.Rev. 631, 640.

21. idem, p.639, n.63.

22. Trib. corr. Abbéville, 12 07 1943, J.C.P. 1944, II, 2624.

23. Op. cit. supra n.20, at p.640, n.66. The relevant part of the text in French reads as follows: “Sera puni … quiconque s'abstient volontairement de porter à une personne en péril l'assistance que. sans risque pour lui ni pours les tiers, il pouvait lui prêter. soil par son action personnelle, soil en provoquant un secours.” On criminal liability under Art.223–6 see also Bell J., Boyron S. and Whittaker S., Principles of French Law (1998), p.219.

24. “grave, d'imminent et constant, nécessitant une intervention immédiate”: Cass. crim., 31 05 1949, D. 1949, 347; S. 1949, 1, 126; J.C.P. 1949, II, 4945.

25. TGI Paris, 20 11 1985, D. 1986, 369, note B. Calais.

26. Cass. crim., 26 04 1988, D. 1990, 479, note H. Fenaux.

27. Cass. crim., 23 04 1997, decision No.2185 (pourvoi No.96–83.239).

28. Cass. crim., 9 04 1997, decision No.1961bis (pourvoi No.96–84.431): liability of school authorities; Cass. crim., 8 10 1997, decision No.5339 (pourvoi No.94–84.801); liability of foster-care organisations.

29. Cass. crim., 24 01 1995, D. 1996, 384, note F. Dekeuwer-Défossez and A. Waxin.

30. See e.g. Corr. Agen, 1 03 1991, D. 1992, somm. 70, note A. Prothais.

31. See Larroumet C., note under Cass. civ., 13 12 1972, D. 1973, 493 at 494 and the references there. For a general discussion see also Vranken M., Fundamentals of European Civil Law (1997), chap.6. French administrative law recognises the liability of the State for failure to exercise police powers to put an end to an illegal action which is causing loss to another: Brown L. N. and Bell J., French Administrative Law (5th edn, 1998), p.198.

32. Prior to the above-discussed 1941 and 1945 legislation the question whether mere omissions could give rise to civil liability had been the subject of much discussion: Tune , op. cit. supra n.19, at p.49. By contrast, the civil-law traditionally has had less difficulty in recognising that, where someone volunteers to come to the assistance of someone else, the former is entitled to compensation by application of the Roman law concept of negotiorum gestio. Initially, the emphasis was on the protection of economic interests only, though: Dawson J. P., “Rewards for the Rescue of Human Life?”, in Ratcliffe, op. cit supra n.17, at p.63.

33. Cass. civ., 24 Dec. 1924, D. 1925, 120.

34. “If, pursuant to Articles 1382 and 1383 of the Civil Code, any human act whatever which causes harm to another creates an obligation for the person by whose fault it occurred to repair the damage, and if everyone is liable for their lack of care, an omission only triggers liability if the relevant person was under an obligation to do that which was not done”: idem, p.121 (emph. added).

35. See supra Section C.1.

36. Tune A., “Abstention délictueuse”, para. 34 in D. nouveau rep. 1947, 8. as cited loc. cit. supra n.20.

37. See the discussion of criminal proceedings in Dadomo C. and Farran S., The French Legal System (2nd edn, 1996), pp.192et seq. and the discussion of the “action civile” on pp.201203.

38. Cass. crim., 19 June. 1996, decision No.2822, Bull. crim. No.260; D. 1997, somm. 142, note J. Pradel

39. (1991) 172 C.L.R. 243.

40. idem, p.254.

41. “either pursuant to a legal, regulatory or contractual obligation, or also, in the professional world involving, in particular, a historian, because of the requirement that informational data are objective”: Cass. civ. 27 02 1951, D. 1951, 329, note H. Desbois.

42. See the discussion supra Section B.

43. Cass. civ., 13 12, 1972, D. 1973, 493, note Larroumet. Other decisions that go against the grain include Cass. civ., 6 10 1960, D. 1960, 721; Cass. civ., 17 02 and 16 06 1961, J.C.P. 1962, III 12778; Cass. civ., 18 01 1963, D. 1963, somm. 94.

44. Larroumet, note, idem, p.494.

45. Terré F.. Simler Ph. and Lequette Y., Droit civil, Les obligations (6th edn, 1996), pp.566568.

46. idem, pp.566–567.

47. Cass. civ., 3 12 1968, D. 1969, 253. note P. Couvrat

48. Cass. civ., 31 01 1964, J.C.P. 1964, II, 13620, note R. Savatier. The result in this case may be contrasted with the decision in Branly, discussed supra n.41 and text.

49. Cass. civ., 6 06, 1966, D. 1966, 481, note J. Voulet.

50. “la conduite d'un individu avisé”: Voulet, note, idem, p.482.

51. Terré, Simler and Lequette, op. cit. supra n.45, at p.566, No.689.

* Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, the University of Melbourne.

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