In Defense of the Good Samaritan

In the year 1880, in Dalles City, Oregon, a large and valuable load of lumber fell into the Columbia River and was about to be carried away by the river’s waters. Since Savage, the owner of this lumber, was absent from the scene, Glenn – who, at that time, was doing construction work for Savage – “furnished help and did service” in saving the lumber “from being washed away and lost.” Seven years later, the Supreme Court of Oregon rejected Glenn’s claim that Savage owed him “the reasonable value” of his services as well as of the services of the workmen he employed in saving the lumber. The court did not deny that these services had been “meritorious, and probably beneficial, to Savage,” but it nonetheless insisted that the services “could not create a legal liability on the part of Savage.” “To make him liable,” the Court ruled, “he must either have requested the performance of the service, or, after he knew of the service, he must have promised to pay for it.” Otherwise, the law deems “an act done for the benefit of another, without his request, as a voluntary act of courtesy, for which no action can be sustained.” Were it otherwise, the Court explained, the result would be “ruinous litigation, and the overthrow of personal rights and civil freedom.” As the New Jersey Supreme Court had put it, in an earlier case cited by the Glenn Court, were such actions permitted, “[n]o man’s private business…would be under his control, or free from the interference of strangers, perhaps idlers, drunkards, and perhaps enemies, under such pretences, drawing him from business into litigation.” Furthermore, if the law were otherwise, it would do “violence to some of the kindest and best effusions of the heart to suffer them afterwards to be perverted by sordid avarice.” Hence, the law must not permit “meritorious and generous acts” to be “afterwards converted into a pecuniary demand.”