California Court Limits What Good Samaritans Can Safely Do

December 25, 2008

The handful of 20-something friends went to a bar. They drank until the early morning, then left. And when one of their cars crashed into a light pole, Lisa Torti hurried over and pulled one of the passengers from the wreckage. 

Sound like the story of a good Samaritan? Perhaps. But here in the Golden State, it’s also grounds for a lawsuit.
Last week, a divided California Supreme Court ruled that Torti is not protected from civil liability, because the help she provided wasn’t emergency medical care.
The decision refines the legal immunity granted to good Samaritans under a California statute. It states that “no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”
The ruling emphasizes that immunity applies only to those who provide emergency medical care in such situations.
The court’s ruling stems from a suit filed by Alexandra Van Horn, who claimed that Torti negligently moved her from the car and, in doing so, permanently damaged her spinal cord and rendered her paraplegic. Torti claimed she was trying to help Van Horn, an act protected by the statute, according to court documents.
The court sided with Van Horn. Because the statute is part of a health and safety code pertaining to emergency medical services, it is intended to protect “only those” who provide “emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency,” Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the majority.
Three dissenting judges, in a separate opinion, found that reading of the statute “distorted.” They argued that it “imposes an arbitrary and unreasonable limitation” on the statute’s legal protections, allowing good Samaritans to be sued for incidental damages and limits the help they can offer.
“In the majority’s view, a passerby who, at the risk of his or her own life, saves someone about to perish in a burning building can be sued for incidental injury caused in the rescue, but would be immune for harming the victim during the administration of cardiopulmonary resuscitation out on the sidewalk,” wrote Justice Marvin R. Baxter.
Consequently, Baxter wrote, the result is that Torti has “no immunity for her bravery.”
California common law says that no one is required to help other people, but if they do, they have to do so without negligence, according to John Nockleby, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in tort law. And the state legislature, in order to protect good Samaritans, developed statutes to make sure they were immune from lawsuits if they made minor mistakes.
Consequently, a conflict of impulses — one to help, another to want compensation for negligence — has ensued.
“This is a perennial problem that’s been banging around in the system for decades, the so-called good Samaritan issue,” Nockleby said. “We, as a society, understand the motivation of a good Samaritan to stop and render aid. . . . At the same time, as a general principal of law, we think that people who are harmed by the negligence of another should be compensated.”
“The real issue here, the real message to the public, is that you should stop and assist, but don’t do things that make the situation worse,” Nockleby said.
Nockleby noted that good Samaritans are always — and are still — protected from liability if they provide “reasonable help,” or what most people would do in a given situation.
The question of whether Torti’s actions toward Van Horn constituted such help will probably go before a jury next summer.
According to court documents, on Oct. 31, 2004, Torti and Van Horn went to a bar with friends and drank until the early morning. When they left, Torti was a passenger in one car; Van Horn was a passenger in another.
In Chatsworth, Calif., the driver of Van Horn’s car lost control as the car was traveling at 45 mph, then crashed into a curb and struck a light pole. The air bags deployed. Torti and the driver of another car pulled over. Torti then removed Van Horn from the car.
Just how and why Van Horn moved Torti is disputed. Torti testified that she placed one arm under Van Horn’s legs and the other behind her back to lift her. She did so, she said, because she saw smoke and liquid coming from Watson’s car, and she feared the vehicle would catch fire or explode.
But others who testified said there was no smoke, nor was there any indication the car would explode. To remove Van Horn, they said, Torti grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out “like a rag doll,” court documents note. Then Torti set Van Horn next to the car.
“Why did she leave her at the foot of the car if she says it was going to explode?” asked Michael Snider, a partner at the law firm representing Van Horn.
Ronald D. Kent, an attorney for Torti, was traveling and could not be reached for comment, according to his office.
Source: Washington Post

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