On Halloween night in 2004, Alexandra Van Horn, Lisa Torti, and some friends decided to go out to a bar near Northridge, California for some drinks. On the way home, Van Horn and Torti were in two different cars, and the driver of Van Horn’s car lost control and crashed into a light pole at approximately 45 miles per hour. Torti’s car pulled over and got out to help the occupants of the other vehicle. Believing that the car might catch fire, Torti pulled Van Horn from the car but in doing so, Van Horn suffered various injuries to her spin and was permanently paralyzed in both legs.
Van Horn sued Torti, saying that she was removed from the car “like a rag doll” which was responsible for the spine injuries that she sustained after the crash. Torti thought that she was protected from a lawsuit by California Safety and Health Code section 1799.102, which states that no unpaid person who acts in good faith can be held liable for rendering care at the scene of an emergency. This is known as a Good Samaritan Law. All 50 states have some form of a Good Samaritan Law that can offer both civil and criminal protections. Depending on the state and situation, these laws could range from protecting a bystander from liability after an accident to making them immune from criminal charges while handling an emergency situation involving illegal drugs or alcohol. The idea behind Good Samaritan Laws is to reduce hesitation by bystanders at the scene of an emergency while encouraging responsible aid that could potentially save someone’s life. However, in practice, the law and its interpretation is not nearly that simple.
As it turns out, Van Horn was not only able to sue Torti for pulling her from the car, but she eventually won. Although Torti prevailed in the initial trial in court, the Court of Appeal, in a very divided 4-3 ruling, disagreed and decided in favor of Van Horn. The court’s decision hinged on the wording of the particular statute and the idea that ‘emergency medical care’ does not necessarily equal rescue or extraction from the vehicle. Because of this, the protections offered by Good Samaritan Laws were nullified. Essentially, the court determined that moving someone to a safer location is not the same as providing medical care.
“Not only did this seem like an issue with semantics, but it was also extremely confusing for a person who was faced with an emergency in the heat of the moment,” says Orange County personal injury lawyer and former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, John Montevideo. “Moreover, it set up a very backwards precedent.” It doesn’t take much to see that he’s right. Take for example this excerpt from Justice Baxter’s dissenting opinion on the matter: “[A] hiker can be sued if, far from other help, he or she causes a broken bone while lifting a fallen comrade up the face of a cliff to safety, but would be immune if, after waiting for another member of the party to effect the rescue, he or she set the broken bone incorrectly.”
Justice Baxter makes an excellent point here; the distinction of ‘medical care’ is not the best indication for removing someone from harm’s way. Therefore, in response to the ruling, state senator John Benoit proposed SB 39 in 2009 which amended the current statute to define emergency care as “medical or nonmedical” which is the current verbiage used today.
Although the statute now has more inclusive wording, it’s important to remember that these protections are not afforded to everyone. Off duty medical personnel are subject to more rigorous standards than a lay person, especially if they make a mistake or act outside the realm of their training. That said, an off duty doctor or nurse is not obligated by law to assist anyone. But, if they act as a willing volunteer, they may become liable for any additional harm that occurs to someone after they have been involved in the accident.
As complex as this may sound, it’s important to remember that this is only the law in California. As mentioned above, every state has a unique version of a Good Samaritan Law, so be sure to read up on your specific state’s law to ensure that you can provide emergency aid and not be held liable for any damages or incur criminal charges along the way.