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News out of California: gang rape raises questions about bystanders

Here’s a question philosophers like to ponder: say you saw watch a child drowning, and it would require hardly any effort on your part to save the child.  Do you have a duty to help – to rescue the child?

The answer at common law is usually no: a person who has not created a risk, and a person who has no relationship (familial, contractual) has no duty to rescue, even if rescuing would cost the person very little.  There are exceptions: police have an affirmative duty to rescue, as do doctors, perhaps nurses, and other medical professionals.  But, generally, there is no duty to rescue or come to the aid of another person who is in harm’s way.

Some states have altered the rule.  For instance, California imposes a duty to to report a crime against a child under 15, and makes it a misdemeanor for failure to do so.

The issue has become relevant again because of news out of California that a 15-year-old victim was raped by several different individuals at a homecoming dance at a local high school.  The story is tragic because, apparently, no one reported it until she was found unconscious later in the evening.

The California “duty to report” law does not apply because she was 15, not 14 or younger.

The case reminds us of Kitty Genovese, a case involving the stabbing death of a woman in New York in 1964. Neighbors reportedly heard her cries for help, but were either slow to respond or failed to respond.  As a result, police didn’t arrive until nearly an hour after the attack began.

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