California court holds rescuers liable for injuries

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.