How California Redefined Good Samaritan Laws

According to a 2007 California appellate court ruling, the state's Good Samaritan law was all but abolished, placing those who help others at risk of liability and legal damages. The controversial decision was upheld by the California Supreme Court in December of 2008.

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While the reading of the law suggests that good Samaritans are protected from civil liability, there are limitations on who can intervene as a Samaritan, even in life-threatening situations.

Protection for Selfless Acts

Good Samaritan laws are meant to protect lay people who, for no other reason than kindness, come to the aid of a fellow human in need. The general concept is that, as long as you render help without an expectation of payment or reward, you will be immune from liability if injury, property damage, or even death occurs. The laws can vary, but every state in the United States has some form of Good Samaritan law.

However, a ruling on March 21, 2007, by the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District/Division 3 restricted the state's law by establishing that only those who render "emergency medical care" are protected from damages.

While the term may seem innocuous enough on the surface, the appellate court definition has continued to divide many legal experts and ethicists.

Defining Emergency Medical Care

The problem many people have with the court's ruling is that it narrowly defines what "emergency medical care" means. In their ruling, the court stated that the term did not include actions related to rescue but solely those related to the rendering of medical care.

The ruling was in response to a case in which a lay rescuer named Lisa Torti pulled an injured victim, Alexandra Van Horn, from a car Torti believed was going to catch fire. As a result of the rescue, Van Horn was paralyzed. The lawyers for the plaintiff argued that the Torti's actions needlessly caused the paralysis and that the appropriate action would have been to wait until trained paramedics arrived at the scene.

Though Torti sought and won an initial summary judgment from a superior court judge, the decision was later overturned by the appellate court, partly based on the use of the term "medical."

Legal Interpretation of Medical Care

California's original Good Samaritan law was included as 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. At the time of the rescue in 2004, the stature in Division 2.5 related to Good Samaritans protection read as follows:

Original Statute 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 appellate court ruling, the word "medical" meant that only medical care rendered at the scene of an emergency is covered by the law. Moving a victim to a safer location, in the court's opinion, was not medical care but an act of rescue. In a split 4 to 3 decision, the California Supreme Court paved the way for Van Horn, the victim, to sue Torti, the Good Samaritan.

In defending the court's decision, Justice H. Walter Croskey stated: "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."

By contrast, the three justices in the minority felt that, while Torti made mistakes that warranted a lawsuit, they didn't see any reason to reinterpret the law.

California's New Law

In response to an outcry from legal activists, California's legislators immediately rewrote the section of the statute to better reflect the intention of the law:

Amended Statute 1799.201

"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 had hoped to reinforce long-standing protection by stating: "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."

Despite the apparent turnaround, the amended legislation still has legal flaws.

Exclusions and Conflicts

The main problem with the amended statute is that it excludes anyone whose actions (or inaction) constitutes "gross negligence." In legal terms, gross negligence is the conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care, which is likely to cause foreseeable injury or harm.

While one could argue that Good Samaritans, by the very nature of their actions, are unlikely to be grossly negligent in rendering emergency aid, there is enough "wiggle room" in the language to cause concern.

In a life and death situation, the choice to act can sometimes result in unintended harm if the Good Samaritan is an untrained medical profession. As such, it could be argued that any medical mistake could be "grossly negligent" if the defendant is unable to prove that not acting would have resulted in a worse outcome. Sometimes, even the best medical experts cannot determine this.

In such a case, if taken to trial, it is easy for a prosecutor to paint a Samaritan's actions as reckless, especially if the harm caused is permanent or severe.

It is important to point out that the exclusion related gross negligence and willful or wanton misconduct only exists in the subsection dedicated to laypersons. Off-duty professionals, such as firefighters or police officers, are fully protected under the amended statute.

Moreover, under the current law, you can be found guilty of negligence if you start a rescue attempt and then abandon it for no particular reason.

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  1. California Supreme Court. Alexandra Van Horn, plaintiff and respondent, vs Anthony Glen Watson, defendant and appellant; Lisa Torti, defendant and respondent, and consolidated case. Filed August 1, 2007.