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The question

Our neighbour is a 92-year-old woman with dementia. She has a full-time caregiver during the day. On a rainy day recently, in nearly sub-zero temperatures, my wife saw that the woman had fallen while transferring by walker from the caregiver’s car to her home. We tried to help but were unable to get her back onto the walker. My wife ran over to ask for help from a car idling nearby. The woman driver said she wouldn’t help because that could expose her to liability lawsuits. She suggested calling the paramedics, then rolled up her window, not even offering to hold an umbrella over our neighbour. Eventually, with the help of another neighbour, we were able to get her into her home. Do you think the litigious nature of American society is spilling over into Canada? Should I have noted down the woman’s licence plate and publicized her good Samaritan refusal on social media?

The answer

Short answer: no.

There are enough different kinds of “shaming” going on in the (social media) world today: fat shaming, fashion shaming, ex-girlfriend shaming, “slut shaming,” cheat-on-your-spouse shaming (e.g. the Ashley Madison data breach, hacked into and revealing names of everyone who went on the popular extramarital-affair website) – the list goes on and on.

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It can lead to all kinds of unfortunate outcomes. The last thing we need in the 21st century is a new type of shaming: “Good Samaritan refusal shaming.”

But the other question raised here, of course is: To what extent should we feel obliged or morally compelled to help out someone who is in distress or in need of assistance?

I came here to Canada at age 11 (from the United States) and one thing I’ve always loved about it is the beauty and touchingness of Canadian helpfulness. If your briefcase pops open on, say, a windy day, and your papers scatter everywhere (I’ve seen this happen), everyone in the vicinity will break into fact-finding groups and rush around grabbing them and return them to you.

Famously, you leave your wallet on the subway or a bus or whatnot and it might be returned to you with all the cash intact.

I’ve also lived in New York. I used to roller-blade around town, if you can even picture that, and one time I fell. It was what my friends and I used to call a real “yard sale” of a wipeout – in other words, my stuff went flying all over the place and lay on the ground.

I lay on the ground, too, trying to collect my wits.

But there were no “fact-finding groups.” No one even offered to help me up. They just all stood around laughing and pointing. “Hey, check it out man, that dude fell ha-ha-ha!" I kid you not.

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And famously in New York, if someone was teetering on the edge of a ledge, contemplating stepping off, people on the sidewalk would yell: “Jump! Jump!”

(At least they used to. Kind of hard to picture now.)

We obviously don’t want to devolve into that type of society.

And by the way, just as a bit of a PSA, the woman in the car got the legal component completely muddled.

In fact, in most jurisdictions in North America there are laws specifically aimed at protecting you from litigation in case something goes wrong in the course of trying to help someone out.

Moreover, there are also such things as “duty to rescue” laws which hold you liable if you fail to provide assistance.

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I don’t think they would apply here. This wasn’t an emergency.

More a moral than a legal issue, and of course that woman in the idling car (pet peeve of mine, and probably a good hint as to her selfishness, but that’s a rant for another day) should have jumped out and helped you.

But shaming her is not the answer. Just let her put her car in gear and drive away. Concentrate on the good example you’re setting for others and continue to be helpful yourselves and of assistance. You should be proud. It’s a very important and holy thing.

And good karma for you.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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