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No Good Samaritan

My Opinion: California Courts Muddied the Water


Updated January 24, 2014

The placement of California's Good Samaritan statute has all but rendered it useless for the very population it should protect, thanks to an appellate court ruling upheld by the California Supreme Court.

Good Samaritan laws are meant to protect lay people who, for no reason other than kindness, come to the aid of fellow human beings in need.

The general concept is that, as long as you help without any expectation of payment or reward, you will be immune from liability for screwing things up while you're trying to help - as long as you don't screw up really bad.

A ruling on March 21, 2007, by the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division 3, essentially restricted California's version of the Good Samaritan Law - the one we think we're following when we stop at a car crash - to only acts that can be defined as emergency medical care.

So, what's emergency medical care?

Well, that's the rub. Emergency medical care apparently does not include rescue, which is the act in question in this case. A lay rescuer pulled an injured victim from a car the rescuer thought was going to catch fire. The victim is now paralyzed and there is some debate whether the rescuer's actions or the crash caused the paralysis.

Let me state at least one obvious point here: no crash equals no injuries equals no need for a rescuer at all.

I'll let that sink in all by itself.

The rescuer sought and won a summary judgment (basically a get-out-of-court-free card) from a superior court judge. That judgment has now been overturned by the appellate court, partially because of where the law is found.

California's Good Samaritan Law is part of Division 2.5 of California's Health and Safety Code. Among other things, Division 2.5 covers emergency medical services for the state. Because of that, the appellate court plugged the word "medical" where it doesn't exist.

From Division 2.5 of the California Health and Safety Code:

1799.102. 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 scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered.
According to the ruling, the existence of the word "medical" in the last sentence, and the statute's location near other sections regarding emergency medical services means that only medical care is covered by the law.

Why is that important? Because of the court's decision that moving a victim to a safer location is not medical care.

From the decision, written by Justice H. Walter Croskey:

"There may be circumstances in which moving someone from their current location is a matter of medical exigency, such as where a carbon monoxide poisoning victim needs to be moved to a source of fresh air. We do not hold that the act of moving a person is never the rendition of emergency medical care, only that it was not in this case."
The problem with this thinking is that untrained rescuers - the very population this law is intended to protect - are supposed to make a determination as to whether the care they are rendering is medical in nature in order to benefit from Good Samaritan protection.

The California Supreme Court heard arguments on this case and agreed with the appellate court -- barely. In a 4 to 3 split decision, the Supreme Court paved the way for Alexandra van Horn, the injured accident victim, to sue her rescuer, Lisa Torti.

An important point: the 3 justices in the minority felt that while Torti may have made mistakes bad enough to be sued, they didn't see any reason to completely reinterpret the law. I agree, and wish at least one more justice had sided with them.

The next time I'm lying in a car, unable to move, I want a Good - nay, Great - Samaritan to pull me free of the burning mass of twisted metal. Even if it turns out, as it may in this case, that the smoke was just from the airbags being deployed.

I teach, and will continue to teach, that positioning and location are part of medical care at the scene of an emergency. I don't know if the defendant in this case jumped the gun, but she - and all the other potential Good Samaritans to come after her - deserve to have this ruling overturned.

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