No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

How California Courts Nearly Destroyed Its Good Samaritan Law

The courts really made a mess of California's Good Samaritan Law. Chris Ryan / Getty Images

According to a preposterous California appellate court ruling, the placement of California's Good Samaritan statute all but rendered it useless for the very population it should protect. That ridiculous decision was upheld by the California Supreme Court in December of 2008.

The courts virtually abolished California's Good Samaritan Law.

Protection for Selfless Acts

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 in a way that normal adult humans would know not to do. Every state in the US has some form of Good Samaritan Law.

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 you are following when you stop at a car crash - to only acts that can be defined as emergency medical care.

What Exactly Is Emergency Medical Care?

Well, that's the rub. The court ruled that emergency medical care did not include rescue, which was the act in question in this case. A lay rescuer pulled an injured victim from a car that the rescuer thought was going to catch fire. The victim became paralyzed and there was quite the debate about whether the rescuer's actions or the crash caused the paralysis.

Obvious point here: no crash equals no injuries equals no need for a rescuer at all.

Let that sink in before deciding if the crash or the rescue actually caused the injuries.

Medical or Not Medical? That is the Question

The rescuer sought and won a summary judgment (basically a get-out-of-court-free card) from a superior court judge, which is how Good Samaritan protection usually works. That judgment was overturned by the appellate court, partially because of where the law was found.

California's original Good Samaritan Law was 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 as it stood in 2004, when the original incident happened:

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 meant 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 was that untrained rescuers - the very population this law was intended to protect - were supposed to make a determination as to whether the care they were rendering was 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 in the case, to sue her rescuer, Lisa Torti.

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.

California's New Good Sam Law

Once the courts found words that arguably did not exist in the law, which rendered it pretty much useless, California's legislators had to jump to the rescue (nonmedical care only, of course).

They rewrote the section of the statute so that now "no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care or assistance at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission other than an act or omission constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct."

The legislature wanted to make sure everyone knew that they meant to protect everyone, "It is the intent of the Legislature to encourage other individuals to volunteer, without compensation, to assist others in need during an emergency, while ensuring that those volunteers who provide care or assistance act responsibly."

They almost got it right.

It is important to point out that the exclusion of protection for acts or omissions constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct only exists in the subsection dedicated to laypersons, which means a lay rescuer can still be sued for really screwing up. Off-duty folks with medical training, or cops or firefighters, are fully protected under this new version of the statute. So, in effect, you are less protected in California if you're not trained than you are if you're a doctor or a paramedic.

At least they tried.

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