The Supreme Court of California has ruled that one good deed may very well not go unpunished unleashing a debate not only on who is a Good Samaritan but also who shouldn't even think about being one. On Dec. 19, the court made a decision in the case of Alexandra Van Horn v. Lisa Torti. The case alleged that Torti worsened the injuries suffered by Van Horn by yanking her "like a rag doll" from a wrecked car on Nov. 1, 2004, thus rendering Van Horn a paraplegic. The court found that Torti wasn't protected from legal action under California's current Good Samaritan laws.
Those laws were set in place in 1980, when the state legislature enacted Health and Safety Code 1799.102, which provides 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." However, in its sharply divided 4-3 ruling, the high court held that the state statute immunizing rescuers from liability applies only if the individual is providing medical care in an emergency situation, citing the statute's placement in a section of the code dealing with emergency medical services. Torti, who is not a health-care worker, believed she was acting as a concerned friend.
"Miss Torti is disappointed by the ruling, and we do think it will have negative repercussions here in California," says Torti's attorney, Jody Steinberg. "How it will affect the rest of the country, whether they will follow the supreme court's ruling is yet to be seen." Steinberg warns, "Here in California, one of these days we can have another earthquake, and the question is, Do you want people to help or do you want people to be thinking about whether they're going to get sued?" Van Horn's attorney, Robert B. Hutchinson, did not return several calls for comment. Steinberg has requested that the supreme court hear the case again. It will decide whether to do so by March. (Read about lawsuit abuse.)
In response to the ruling, Republican state senator John Benoit of Riverside proposed a bill on Jan. 6 that would extend the statute to include all emergency services rendered at the scene of an emergency, regardless of who performs the deed. "I spent 31 years in law enforcement, and as a highway patrol officer I responded to many, many, many accidents. I was not the first one there. Someone had helped a victim out of the car, out of the traffic lane, administered CPR," says Benoit. "I immediately, upon hearing about this case, was extremely concerned that it would in any way thwart people's willingness to give that aid, because in my experience that would translate into lives lost." (Read about California's looming fiscal crisis.)
The proposed legislation, SB 39, would enact the Good Samaritan Protection Act, which would amend the current statute to define emergency care as "medical or nonmedical." Referring to the current Good Samaritan statute, Benoit says, "If in fact the intention was just to limit it to medical providers providing medical care, that was too narrow [a piece of legislation] in my estimation, and this case shows it. I don't believe that was really the intent, even if it is in fact the way it's been interpreted. If not, it needs to be changed. We need to clarify that, and I thought, Let's move quickly and clarify it." Such proposed legislation would not be retroactive and would have no impact on the ruling in the TortiVan Horn case. (Read about Good and Bad Samaritans.)
Some legal experts, however, argue that the proposed reform is a bad idea. University of Southern California law school professor Michael Shapiro feels that expanding the current statute to immunize not just medical personnel but also the general public would be a mistake. "I would not favor a law that says, 'Hey, if someone wants to rescue people, let them do it, just don't stop them deliberately, and if they botch it up and if they're careless and stupid, fine,' " says Shapiro. "I don't think that's a good state of affairs. I think a lot of people would be made worse off."
Shapiro says the message of the TortiVan Horn case is not "Don't rescue, because if anything happens to the person, you're liable." Those who choose to rescue people have always been protected under common law, he points out, provided they act with due care. "If you wanted to rescue somebody, you can go rescue somebody even if you are not a doctor, but if you are negligent and the person is hurt, you're going to be liable," says Shapiro. "Negligent means unacceptably careless. It's not that big of an obligation to put on people not to act in a way that is unacceptably careless even when you're rescuing someone."
Indeed, in its decision, the supreme court made reference to common-law principles, saying that a "person has no duty to come to the aid of another. If, however, a person elects to come to someone's aid, he or she has a duty to exercise due care. Thus, a 'Good Samaritan' who attempts to help someone might be liable if he or she does not exercise due care and ends up causing harm."
Torti's lawyer Steinberg says he and his client aren't counting on the California high court's rehearing the case. Says Steinberg: "It's certainly not common that the supreme court reverses its decision." If the court decides to let its judgment stand, he says, the civil suit will most likely commence in August or September. Steinberg's defense strategy will focus then on whether his client acted reasonably under the circumstances and whether Van Horn's injuries were caused by the accident itself or occured when she was moved.