California court holds rescuers liable for injuries

posted at 9:45 am on December 20, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

In this season of Christmas, let us reflect on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  After a traveler had been assaulted and then ignored by the rest of the community, a Samaritan rescued him and helped him recover.  If the Samaritan moved to California, he’d better have a good lawyer, as the state Supreme Court ruled that the liability shield passed for those who conduct emergency rescues and inadvertently injure the victims only applies to medical personnel:

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a young woman who pulled a co-worker from a crashed vehicle isn’t immune from civil liability because the care she rendered wasn’t medical.

The divided high court appeared to signal that rescue efforts are the responsibility of trained professionals. It was also thought to be the first ruling by the court that someone who intervened in an accident in good faith could be sued.

Lisa Torti of Northridge allegedly worsened the injuries suffered by Alexandra Van Horn by yanking her “like a rag doll” from the wrecked car on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Torti now faces possible liability for injuries suffered by Van Horn, a fellow department store cosmetician who was rendered a paraplegic in the accident that ended a night of Halloween revelry in 2004.

Torti and Van Horn traveled in separate cars, and the driver of Van Horn’s car ran into a light pole at 45 MPH. Torti testified that she saw smoke and liquid coming from the car and thought the vehicle would explode, trapping Van Horn.  She rushed to pull her co-worker from the car, and Van Horn alleges that Torti aggravated a broken vertebra that damaged her spinal cord.  She sued Torti (and the driver) for causing her paralysis.

I remember when California passed the 1990 law shielding rescuers, and the intent was not just to limit the liability of EMS and other professional rescuers.  Cases like Van Horn’s had begun popping up where people who acted in good faith to rescue people in danger had gotten sued for causing incidental or aggravating injuries.  CPR, for example, can cause ribcage injuries even if done properly.  The legislature intended to encourage people to assist in emergencies, especially those that could not wait for official rescue teams to arrive — like cars about to explode with people trapped inside them.

The court, however, saw it differently, and the Times found at least one legal expert to agree with the majority:

Both opinions have merit, “but I think the majority has better arguments,” said Michael Shapiro, professor of constitutional and bioethics law at USC.

Shapiro said the majority was correct in interpreting that the Legislature meant to shield doctors and other healthcare professionals from being sued for injuries they cause despite acting with “reasonable care,” as the law requires.

Noting that he would be reluctant himself to step in to aid a crash victim with potential spinal injuries, Shapiro said the court’s message was that emergency care “should be left to medical professionals.”

In the first place, “medical professionals” in this instance would have been EMS.  I believe that they already have protection from personal liability as part of their work for the state, and wouldn’t have needed the 1990 shield from lawsuits.  But leave that aside for the moment.  What happens when no “medical professionals” are present?  If that car had caught fire and exploded and Torti had done nothing to rescue her friend, she would have died, and her family would probably have sued her for that.

The court has sent a signal to the people of California: don’t get involved.  If someone’s drowning, don’t jump in the lake and save them.  If someone’s trapped in a car that’s about to explode, sit there and watch the show.  Just make a phone call, and who cares that it might be several minutes before an EMS team can make it to the scene?  If you sit on your hands, no one can sue you for all you’re worth.

Update: Forgot to hat-tip Patrick Edaburn at The Moderate Voice.

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I guess if I am in California, as I often am, and I see someone needing a tire change on the side of the road, I’ll keep driving. Surely they’d get in their car, maybe have a wreck and blame me for getting them back on the road in the first place.

johnnyU on December 22, 2008 at 5:58 PM

Thank goodness I live in TX. We’re neighborly here. I was stuck on our rural loop (1604-AKA the “Death Loop”) one night and saw an overturned truck, and the victim lying about 30-40 feet away. He wasn’t moving. He had been thrown through the windshield and onto the pavement. I did what I could until the cops and EMS arrived.

If this was CA, I would wave at the twitching body and drive on.

john1schn on December 23, 2008 at 12:12 AM

As a Californian (and retired law-enforcement officer) who would always respond to such a situation, I am disappointed but not surprised at the court’s decision. On the other hand, it fits right in with the mentality of a growing number of our state’s residents.

gary fouse

gary fouse on December 23, 2008 at 12:20 AM

Texas Good Samaritan Law:

The Texas Good Samaritan Law limits the civil liability of persons administering emergency care in good faith at the scene of an emergency or in a health care facility. The law limits the civil liability of these persons unless their actions are willfully and wantonly negligent.

Pay attention to willfully and wantonly. If this accident had been in TX, the plaintiff would not have a leg to stand on.

/no, not literally…

john1schn on December 23, 2008 at 1:24 AM

Mr. Blake, many of us would be more likely to listen to you if you weren’t so nasty in the way you address others.

DrMagnolias on December 22, 2008 at 2:21 PM

I address people the way they address or have addressed me.

The typical “all-or-nothing” argument you spew is a lot like your lower intestine, Blake…stinky.

selias on December 22, 2008 at 12:02 PM

You seem to know a lot about lower intestines. Maybe, you should pull your head out of yours and other people’s ass? Just sayin’

I can think of more than 2 dozen reasons to extract a victim out of a smashed vehicle before a trained professional arrives…a potential explosion or fire not included.

selias on December 22, 2008 at 12:02 PM

And, none of them applied here. And one does not go into shock from being trapped in a car and the smoke from the airbag is harmless.

Blake on December 24, 2008 at 8:03 AM

Liberal creeps like Blake makes us Conservatives understand why we hate the far left sue happy jerks of the ACLU and other lawers that pray on fears of self-reliant people, people that want the ability to help and assist our neighbors in need.

Mark Garnett on December 22, 2008 at 11:54 AM

I’m not a liberal creep but a smart conservative and have never sued anyone in my life. If you are a conservative, you are a dumb one. Switch parties, please.

And for the record: Lawyers don’t sue people on their own behalf. People hire them to sue others. No client, no lawsuit. Your beef appears to be with the paraplegic people of the world.

Blake on December 24, 2008 at 8:07 AM

This Blake thing is way out of hand.

I agree!

Why is anyone bothering to reply to this individual after the vitriol he/she started to spew?

Badger40 on December 22, 2008 at 11:47 AM

Because they hate facts and the people who cite them. They also enjoy spewing vitriol themselves, especially when it’s twenty against one. lol

Blake on December 24, 2008 at 8:10 AM

Without knowing the particulars of this case, I can only say that if the rescuer really believed she was doing a good thing & tried her best, no matter what the outcome, it sets a dangerous precedent to persecute/prosecute her for it.

So, it’s her belief that counts no matter how unreasonable the belief and no matter how negligent her actions and no matter how tragic the results? Talk about setting dangerous precedents.

If the rescuer was drunk &/or stoned, then that is a separate issue. Even drunk &/or stoned people do good deeds on occasion.

No, it is not a separate issue. It is part of this case. The woman was smoking dope and then went out for drinks. No one saw any smoke or any liquid coming from the car. She dumped her right next to the car. The ems arrived moments later. Did she have a reasonable belief or was she fk up out of her gourd?

Bottom line-people can be inherently brave & good-why would we want to mess with this?

Badger40 on December 22, 2008 at 11:47 AM

Oh, I dunno. Because some people don’t want to be paralyzed for life by some stoner?

Blake on December 24, 2008 at 8:30 AM

Pay attention to willfully and wantonly. If this accident had been in TX, the plaintiff would not have a leg to stand on.

john1schn on December 23, 2008 at 1:24 AM

Unless, a Texas court finds that yanking someone who has a severe spinal injury by the arm and dumping them immediately near the truck when there was no reasonable belief it was necessary and EMS arrived moments afterward, i.e., the siren was audible, was willfully and wantonly negligent. Then the defendant has no legs to stand on.

Blake on December 24, 2008 at 8:59 AM