Good Samaritanism Died in a Car Crash

The California Supreme Court effectively killed the spirit of the state's "Good Samaritan Law" (HSC§1799.102) last month and, along with it, countless individuals who'll be left to suffer and die because of would-be rescuers sidelined for fear of being sued. Since the stunning decision (S152360) on Dec. 18, my email and voicemail boxes have been deluged with questions about how this will affect EMS providers and what it all means in the “big picture.” So much for a relaxing holiday…

For those of you who don't know, the story begins on Halloween night 2004. The plaintiff, Alexandra Van Horn, and the defendant, Lisa Torti, along with a few others were at the defendant's house smoking marijuana until about 10 p.m., when they all decided that going to a bar would be an even better idea. They enjoyed numerous potent potables until about 1:30 a.m. when they left the bar by car. The defendant was a passenger in one of two cars, the plaintiff was the passenger in the other.

It was not too long before the plaintiff’s vehicle lost control, struck the curb, and crashed into a light pole at about 45 miles per hour. The light pole was knocked over and the airbags deployed.

The second vehicle quickly pulled over and both the defendant and the driver of that car got out to help. The driver of the crashed vehicle easily exited under his own power, but with some assistance. . The plaintiff, on the other hand, was still sitting in the car when the defendant approached. This is where accounts differ.

The defendant testified that she removed the plaintiff from the vehicle by placing one hand under her legs and the other behind her back to lift her out. The plaintiff testified that the defendant pulled her from the vehicle by grabbing and yanking her arm like a "rag doll."

Another critical, yet conflicting, recollection about the events of that night concerns whether smoke was emanating and fluid was leaking from the vehicle. The defendant contends that billowing smoke and leaking fluid were both present and that she extricated the plaintiff for fear that the vehicle would explode. Others testified that there was neither smoke nor leaking fluid present.

In either event, there is no dispute that the defendant placed the extricated plaintiff immediately next to the vehicle. The driver sustained only minor injuries from the collision, while the plaintiff is permanently paralyzed.

The plaintiff sued the defendant alleging that her hasty extrication caused the permanent paralysis. The defendant moved to have the case dismissed based on California Health & Safety Code 1799.102, the "Good Samaritan Law," which states, "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." (emphasis added)

The trial court agreed with the defendant as a matter of law and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed and the appellate court overturned the ruling. The case was heard by the California Supreme Court; and here we are.

In reading the facts, several questions arise — for me, anyway. Were the defendant's actions reasonable? Was it reasonable for the defendant to believe that there was an emergency? Is extrication from a wrecked vehicle considered emergency care? Did the defendant act in good faith? By allowing the plaintiff to smoke marijuana in her home, did the defendant somehow set in motion the events that led to the injury? Finally, did the plaintiff contribute to her own injuries by knowingly riding with someone who was impaired?

According to the California Supreme Court, none of these questions affected the decision. Instead, the Court — of its own volition — added the word "medical" to the intent and effectively changed the spirit and meaning of the entire statute.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Carlos R. Moreno opines that, because the statute is located within a division of the Health & Safety Code entitled "Emergency Medical Services," the legislators must have intended emergency medical care when they drafted the act. In so doing, he essentially asserts that the legislators were not competent enough to say what they meant when they wrote the law. Justice Moreno goes on to cite other sections, which discuss the development, accessibility, and provision of EMS as being conclusive of the original intent of the Good Samaritan Law to encompass only medical care.

Ultimately, the court ruled that extricating a person from the wreckage of a vehicle, all other considerations notwithstanding, is not medical in nature and thus does not enjoy the protection of the Good Samaritan Law.

In a thoughtfully conceived and brilliantly written dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Marvin R. Baxter begins by pointing out that nothing in the language of the statute "limits or qualifies the kind of emergency aid — medical or nonmedical — that an uncompensated lay volunteer may provide without fear of legal reprisal from the person he or she tried to help."

Although the dissenting opinion stretches for some 13 pages, Justice Baxter's arguments are succinctly summed up in paragraph two:

"A statute’s plain language is a dispositive indicator of its meaning unless a literal reading would lead to absurd consequences the Legislature did not intend...[T]he plain meaning of section 1799.102 does not produce absurd results; on the contrary, it implements sound and logical public policy. The statute protects from the threat of civil litigation a layperson who, acting as a Good Samaritan, reasonably perceived that another human being needed immediate emergency assistance and intervened, despite possible personal risk and danger, to provide it. The purpose, of course, is to encourage persons not to pass by those in need of emergency help, but to show compassion and render the necessary aid. There is no reason why one kind of lay volunteer aid should be immune, while another is not."

What does it all mean?
For EMS providers on the job, nothing has changed. However, off the job, and for the average layperson, the floodgates of civil liability hell have opened up, to be closed again only by affirmative legislation or contrary Supreme Court action — neither of which will happen any time soon.

As a result — not of the decision, but of the rationale behind the decision — humanity will grow even more distant, helping hands will fall idle, and people will die.

As Justice Baxter says in his dissenting opinion, "One who dives into swirling waters to retrieve a drowning swimmer can be sued for incidental injury he or she causes while bringing the victim to shore, but is immune for harm he or she produces while thereafter trying to revive the victim."

The long and short of it is this: Compassion and righteousness no longer rule the day. The helping hands of strangers — even in crisis — have been shackled by the specter of liability and locked by the state's highest court.

A society urged to stand at the ready and united against acts of terrorism has been effectively warned about helping in the aftermath; lay rescue efforts will go undone.

Those with no training whatsoever, the same people who put butter on burns, will be forced to discern what is medical and what is not before engaging in an act of good samaritanism. More likely than not they will do the safe thing, which, now seems to be nothing at all.

As a result — not of the decision, but of the rationale behind the decision — humanity will grow even more distant, helping hands will fall idle, and people will die. What you choose to do, based on the foregoing, is up to you.

On Halloween night in 2004, Alexandra Van Horn got high, drunk and in a car with a driver in a similar condition. They crashed into a pole and she lost the use of her legs; a scenario that plays out with sickening regularity on the streets of the United States. Rather than take responsibility for her own insidious actions, she deflected the blame upon one person who shared the drugs and alcohol with her; the person who tried to do something good, regardless of how drunk or stupid or unreasonable it may have been.

As a result, your family member or friend might be left to die in the passenger seat of a Cadillac sinking to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean because nobody would help.

Does it seem like I take this too personally? I do. It was my mother who was left to die in the passenger seat of a Cadillac in December, 1974, six years before the Good Samaritan Law was enacted.

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