Why an injured Grand Canyon hiker left behind by ‘friends’ can’t sue him for what he did


The following column was first published on the author’s website Res Ispa Loquitur

When I teach torts at George Washington University Law School, we discuss the “no duty to rescue” doctrine. Under common law, you are not legally required to help someone in peril if you are not responsible for their injury.

A recent incident in Grand Canyon National Park has raised some of the underlying questions 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 hiking on the north side of the park when the man fell and seriously injured his shoulder. They were on their third or fourth day out and had planned another three or four days. One of the backpackers called the sheriff’s office. They then left the seriously injured man behind and continued their journey.


The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue brought out a helicopter but was unable to land in the immediate area due to darkness. So rescuers had to land 400 meters away and walk to where they found the man near a stream. Due to the rugged terrain, rescuers said they were very lucky to find the man.

The injured hiker was found and flown to a hospital for further medical evaluation. (Mohave County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue)

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The man was stabilized and returned to the helicopter. The sheriff’s office clearly wasn’t happy that the backpackers not only “continued their backpacking adventures, leaving the injured hiker alone,” but also took the Apple device used to contact rescuers. They were unable to reach the injured person.

We have already discussed the inability to save or help others. These cases often shock the conscience of many of us. Even public transport workers have been exempted from their duty to rescue.

The rule of absence of duty was the basis of the famous decision Yania v. Bigan, 397 Pa. 316, 155 A.2d 343 (1959), in which a man watched another man drown without making any effort to help him. Even though Bigan challenged Yania to jump into the water-filled hole, the court ruled that it made no difference since the taunts were “directed against an adult in full possession of all his mental faculties.”


Regarding the rule itself, the Court wrote:

Finally, Bigan did not take the necessary measures to save Yania from the water. The mere fact that Bigan saw Yania in a position of peril in the water did not impose on him any legal, albeit moral, obligation or duty to go to her aid unless Bigan was legally responsible, in whole or in part. , for placing Yania in the water. perilous position: Restatement, Torts, § 314. Cf: Restatement, Torts, § 322. The language of this Court in Brown v. French, 104 Pa. 604, 607, 608, is appropriate: “Should it appear that the deceased, through his own recklessness, contributed in any degree to the accident which caused his death, the defendants would not should not have been held responsible for the consequences resulting from this accident… He voluntarily put himself in danger, and his death was the result of his own action. …That his enterprise was extremely imprudent and dangerous the event proves, but there was no one to blame but himself. He had the right to try the experiment, obviously dangerous because it was the case, but it was also on him that the consequences of this experiment rested, and on no one else; He may have been, and probably was, unaware of the risk he was taking on himself, or he knew it, and, relying on his own skill, might have considered it easily surpassable. . But in either case, the result of his ignorance or error must lie with himself – and cannot be blamed on the defendants. “The complaint does not allege any fact that would impose legal liability on Bigan for placing Yania in a dangerous position in the water and, in the absence of such legal liability, the law does not impose on Bigan no rescue obligation.

helicopter landed at Kanab Creek

The helicopter was unable to land in a tight space between the canyon walls and was forced to land approximately 400 meters from the injured hiker. (Mohave County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue)

Acknowledging that the deceased Yania is entitled to the benefit of the presumption that he exercised due diligence and granting the appellant the benefit of all the well argued facts in this complaint and the fair inferences flowing therefrom, we cannot however reach only one conclusion: that Yania, a reasonable and prudent adult, in full possession of all his mental faculties, undertook to carry out an act which he knew or should have known involved more or less danger and it was the accomplishment of this act and not any conduct on the part of Bigan that caused his unfortunate death.

Europeans have always criticized our rule, and many countries have long recognized their duty to rescue – even if that duty usually ends with any physical risk.


Feminists in the United States have also called for an end to rule and an emphasis on collective obligation as opposed to the model of intense individual autonomy that underlies rule. Even famed Judge Richard Posner argued for tort liability for the failure to perform low-cost rescues.

There is also no law preventing these adventurers from abandoning a fallen hiker. The law cannot make us better people.

In the most recent case, any obligation to save this man was based on bonds of friendship and decency rather than on crimes.

As a long-time backpacker and hiker, I have helped injured hikers over the past several years. I was also rescued once from a remote location.

I wouldn’t even think of leaving an injured hiker even on a less remote trail. Even if another hiker insisted that their friends continue their hike, they should refuse and leave at least one hiker behind. (Two is better if they must continue on a remote trail after the rescue). Not only may an injured hiker not be mentally competent to make such a decision, but each hiker must decide independently what the situation requires.

rescuers help injured hiker

Officials said it was fortunate the helicopter was able to locate the hiker after his group left him behind to continue their hike. (Mohave County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue)

I assume the friends tried to put the man at ease and made sure the police were informed.

I also understand that you often have limited time to make the hike to the next designated campsite. This means you may have to lose a day, but it’s better than leaving a disabled elderly hiker in a remote location as evening approaches.


Yet they are under no obligation under common law or state law to assist. There is also no law stopping 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 these moral considerations at the creek with this injured hiker when they decided to abandon him to continue their adventure.



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