Good Samaritans lose in Calif. court

By Legal News Line | Dec 22, 2008

Carlos Moreno

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline)-Do not try this on your own.

That's the message sent by the California Supreme Court last week in a controversial 4-3 ruling that subjects would-be Good Samaritans to potential civil liability.

The court ruled that California law protects only medical professionals who attempt to care for someone in an emergency situation from civil damages, not those lacking such training that attempt to step-in and provide assistance.

According to court documents, the case stemmed from a 2004 Halloween night crash in which Lisa Torti pulled a co-worker from a crashed vehicle. Torti's rough handling of the victim, who suffered spinal injury, is believed to have contributed to her paralysis. The co-worker sued Torti for damages.

In 1980, the California Legislature enacted a law that 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 results from any act or omission."

But the court's ruling Thursday written by Associate Justice Carlos Moreno clarified the law by writing the lawmakers in 1980 intended to protect "only those persons who in good faith render emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency."

The medical care, the court ruled, is designed to protect medical personnel with sufficient training to provide such care.

The dissenting judges argued that such a distinction places "an arbitrary and unreasonable limitation" on people who try to help in a medical emergency. They furthered argued the intent of the Legislature in 1980 was to encourage compassionate response and help, not discourage it by the threat of civil action.

Torti had been in one of two cars who had been out for a night of revelry. The driver of the other car struck a light pole. According to court documents, Torti said she feared a potential explosion when she pulled her injured co-worker from the car.

But witnesses said Torti over-reacted to the potential of threat and roughly handled her co-worker, which in the end left her permanently paralyzed.

"Obviously this is a tough issue since on the one hand you want to make sure that Good Samaritans are protected while on the other hand you don't want obvious irresponsible behavior to be excused (e.g., I am sure we could find a case where a purely innocent victim was hurt by a drunken fool and thus merits some relief)," wrote Patrick Edaburn, a legal blogger.

But a University of Southern California law professor told the Los Angeles Times the majority correctly interpreted the Legislature's intent to shield health care professionals from being sued for injuries they cause when offering "reasonable care."

The message, the professor said, was emergency care "should be left to the professionals."

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