Calif. Court Limits What Samaritans Can Safely Do

By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

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