California Good Samaritan ruling, cont’d

by Walter Olson on December 21, 2008

As mentioned yesterday, California’s Supreme Court has ruled 4-3 that the state’s “Good Samaritan” law providing tort immunity for rescuers applies only to medical personnel providing medical help at an emergency scene, and not to civilians. “Although the law does not distinguish between types of emergency care, the court majority said the context shows it was meant to be limited to medical care. The law was part of a package of legislation on emergency medical services, Justice Carlos Moreno said in the majority opinion.” (SF Chronicle). Unless you’ve got medical training, then, think twice about offering to help. Docbloggers have been discussing the decision since then, with GruntDoc siding with the dissent, SymTym countering on behalf of the majority, and Throckmorton reporting that even being on the right side of the law isn’t enough to provide reassurance nowadays: “Most of my colleagues are afraid to stop at the scene of an accident and render aid for fear of being sued. The Good Samaritan Law is supposed to prevent this fear of suits but no one seems to believe that it will offer any protection.”

P.S. Gleeful Gecko: “Never put out a burning Californian.”

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{ 18 comments }

1 Larry Sheldon 12.21.08 at 4:33 am

For every circumstance, there is a lawyer (or many lawyers) willing to sue.

It is a shapethat there is (apparently) nothing in the legal “ethics” that requires lawyers and judges to say “No. This is wrong.”

2 Benji 12.21.08 at 8:24 am

Not sure how I feel about this specific case. It sounds terrible to sue someone who was only trying to help, but I also remember some Boy Scout first aid training and even there it was mentioned that if there’s a threat of neck or spinal cord damage, you want to let the professionals move the injured unless the imminent risk of death is much greater than the risk of worsening a spinal cord injury. There’s a good chance this Good Samaritan didn’t know that – but do we really want to be immunizing people who know nothing about emergency medical care from injury caused when they try to give medical care?

3 elie 12.21.08 at 9:15 am

It is so easy to second guess the whole situation now. Perhaps the California legislators should pass a law that states a good samaritan can’t be sued unless the person is grossly negligent. that would give a certain level of protection to those people who stop to help others.

4 Bob Lipton 12.21.08 at 9:45 am

… And more employment for lawyers as they get to wrangle in court over what constitutes ‘gross negligence.’

Bob

5 throckmorton 12.21.08 at 11:51 am

I had a long discussion about this California case last night. Many of my fellow physicians have heard of cases were doctors stopped to render aid only to be sued but no one seems to have any first hand experience. I dont know if these cases have really occured or if they are part of a medical urban legend. I am hoping that someone can shed light on this. As physicians, we always feels that we have a bulls eye on our backs and I think it might help if we knew if the “Good Samaritan” laws actually helped or not.

In the meantime I was shocked to learn that last year the US graduated 40,000 new attorneys and only 16,000 physicians!

6 Derek 12.21.08 at 3:22 pm

Elie said, “…Perhaps the California legislators should pass a law that states a good samaritan can’t be sued unless the person is grossly negligent… that would give a certain level of protection to those people who stop to help others…”
Well, that is EXACTLY what other states have done, including the legal language that is missing in California, which deals specifically with so-called ‘civilians’. How California got it wrong amazes me.

7 Todd Rogers 12.21.08 at 6:23 pm

-OR- we could just choose to not visit the state (or move away from the state), and for those of us in “fly-over” country, which is truly what Indiana is, the problem would be solved. This problem will work itself out…it may need the accidental road-side-unassisted-for-fear-of-litigation deaths of a few influential people, but sooner or later, this too shall pass.

8 Shannon 12.21.08 at 7:46 pm

I am completely shocked that this lady has to nerve to sue someone for helping her out. It is only going to make things worse for other people who usually do help no matter what where I live thats what we do we help people out, If someone is broken down on the side of the road or stuck in the snow or was in a car accident. I just can’t believe it but we are talking about a state where robbers can sue their victims for tripping over the coffee table as they are trying to steal from them. That lady should ba ashamed of herself and I don’t wish bad upon her but I believe in Karma life is what you put into is what you get out of it. They are saying she said he would have been better off what if the car caught on fire? I personally would rather be paralized than dead and be able to see and hear my family. May God bless that good samaritan and don’t give up hope, Im behind you and I think it was a brave thing you did, not a lot of people do it these days cause of this fear and also cause it doesn’t fit into their time schedule. We need to start taking care of eachother whether we like it or not otherwise we will have chaos and the lawyers will eat it up to the bank.
Again Im shocked that one human is willing to sue another human helping them out. Unbelievable!!! You should be ashamed of yourself.

9 nevins 12.21.08 at 11:15 pm

“Our position is that the common law still gives any rescuer protection,” Brown said, “if they don’t make the problem worse.”

Which is exactly the same as no protection at all; one needs protection much less often when the outcome is good. As long as California does not have a law compelling one to act then fine with me. Whenever I’m in the state I will just carefully step around the problem and maintain an appropriate legal distance.

10 Nick Lane 12.22.08 at 9:40 am

There is a lot of chatter on the internet misrepresenting the holding and reasoning in this case. Most, of course, is written by lay persons unfamiliar with basic legal principles who just don’t like the fact that the law holds people responsible for their actions. All the decision really states is that a particular section of a statute was not meant to immunize any idiot who runs to the scene of an accident and makes the situation worse. The real purpose behind the statute was to immunize emergency workers such as fireman from liability in these situations. It is a narrow exception carved out of the law in order to encourage local governments to provide rescue services without fear of liability attaching. The legal principle that most of these bloggers and posters are not understanding is this: no one is under a duty to help in a dangerous situation. If you decide to help, you take on a duty to act with due care. It is not about holding good samaritans liable, it is about holding BAD samaritans liable. Feel free to render assistance in an emergency in California or anywhere… just don’t violate your duty to act with care in doing so.

11 William Nuesslein 12.22.08 at 11:54 am

It looks to me to be a case of collecting for an adverse outcome. Lawyers spin tales of avoid-ability to collect on the implied insurance in litigation. Such exercises besmirch the law and civility itself. The problem Mr. Lane ignores is that of defining duty. Do I have a duty to pull a crash victim out of a burning car? No, but I have a duty not to exacerbate spinal problems if I chose to do so. Something is upside down here.

Damages should be paid only from the auto-insurance coverage.

12 Todd Rogers 12.22.08 at 2:58 pm

Nothing personal, Nick. If you’re going about your business one day and happen to see a horrific accident right in front of you, a motivating concoction of adrenalin and empathy are going to demand that most people investigate the situation to determine if he or she might be able to save a family from tragedy. I’ve personally been the good Samaritan on more than one occasion and the idea of avoidance did not occur until I was calling my wife with the “you’re not going to believe what just happened” story. In both cases I went to great lengths to keep my identity secret so as to avoid being dragged in by some suit. But to be sure, these thoughts didn’t occur to me until after the dust settled. Now, when I read that if I crack a rib while giving CPR (for which I’ve been trained) and because I’m just a passer-by I could have a jury decide that that rib just cost me all of my assets, well, I suppose I’ll have to discipline myself to let that infant in a burning car perish for fear of Dewey, Screwem, and How and the spin they’d do on jury.

13 Xmas 12.22.08 at 10:48 pm

Nick,

Ironic you say “Bad Samaritan”, since a Bad Samaritan is the person that does nothing to help those in need.

14 Nick Lane 12.22.08 at 11:03 pm

Mr. Rogers, I certainly appreciate your point, in emergencies people often act (bravely and with the best of intentions) in the blink of an eye. But what you are advocating is the elimination of a principle that has been around since before any good samaritan legislation existed. All the California Supreme Court did was interpret the statute and find that it didn’t protect a particular defendant. The legislature is free to amend the statute, or create one that protects all passers-by, the California legislature has declined to do so. You can’t blame the courts or lawyers for doing their jobs. Courts interpret statutes according to principles of law, not what popular opinion wishes were a legal duty. Lawyers vigorously advocate for their clients, in this case an injured individual. As for your personal behavior in past emergencies, I commend it. You probably won’t lose your house and savings over a broken rib. This case is about as far from a broken rib as you can get. We should all keep in mind how we would feel if our mother or sister or wife were rendered paraplegic because a “rescuer” who flaunted any sense of reason or due care caused a loved one’s injuries. Compensation for a lifetime of medical bills and the loss of companionship of a loved one, caused by someone acting carelessly, ought to be paid by the person actually causing the harm. This is a bedrock principal of our legal system.

15 Peter 12.23.08 at 10:26 am

“This is a bedrock principal of our legal system”……..and the bedrock is exactly the reason why people will walk past instead of helping. It is just not possible in an emergency situation to calmly sit back and assess every action the you are about to do and as the question “am what I am about to do actually going to assist or am i acting irresponsibly and potentially going to cause greater harm” and be able to answer that question to the satisfaction of the legal system? No Sir…Sorry…Not possible.

Even in this case you are discussing, the “rescuer” (to use the same inverted commas to indicate doubt as you have deliberatly done) believed that the car was going to catch fire, and did what they thought was the correct action. Even if they did not think the car was going to catch fire, their action was done with the best of intentions….to rescue someone from an accident. Did she know that there was a spinal injury? No. Did she know that her actions would cause further injury? Of course not! Did she know that the car was not going to catch fire? Of course not! Did she know the car was going to catch fire. Of course not! Did she know that the best couse of action was to do nothing? No of course not! Was she simply doing what she thought was the best thing to be done? Of course. Was she ‘flaunting any sense of reason or due care caused’. Well leaving aside your deliberate use of inflamitary language to justify your point, no. She doing what she thought was the best in the circumstances she found herself. Also remember one important fact. She did not cause the spinal cord injury. The crash did. She may have made it worse by her actions, but she did not cause it, and she certainly did not set out with the intention of doing harm or making the situation worse. As she was trying her best in an emergency situation to do what she thought best, I am very certain that she was not thinking whether she was “flaunting any sense of reason or due care”, but I suppose she is not a lawyer with years of superior reasoning and learning to help decide what to do (or I suppose in your case…not to do) in an emergency.

“As for your personal behavior in past emergencies, I commend it. You probably won’t lose your house and savings over a broken rib.” And what if that broken rib had punctured a lung, causing a collapsed lung and possible heart attack. How does that change things now? (Love the get-out word ‘probably’ by the way. Said with a certainty that will bring heart to all those wondering if they should step up to the breach.)

“We should all keep in mind how we would feel if our mother or sister or wife were rendered paraplegic…..”. And we should all bear in mind our thoughts if our sister or wife were burnt to death whilst a “rescuer/lawyer” pondered whether their actions were going to performed with a sense of reason or constitute due care.

I have come across an accident involving a biker where the onlookers were not treating him. As I went to move him because he was not breathing, I was told that I should not be doing anything because I would be sued. He survived, and did not end up a paraplegic because there was no back injury. Read the bit of that story again where they were all prepared to let someone die because they might be sued. People’s fear of having their life ruined by lawyers has overcome any sense of helping their fellow man. THAT is the bedrock of our legal system.

16 Peter 12.23.08 at 10:40 am

Thought for the day 1.
Making people legally responsible for their actions will result in people absoving them of that legal responsibility by performing no action.

Thought for the Day 2
“…principle that has been around since before any good samaritan legislation existed…” but came into being some time after the Good Samaritan existed.

17 Inessa 12.25.08 at 6:11 pm

Thank you, Peter. I agree with you completely.

What can be done to improve the outcome is to provide the population with free First Aids courses, starting from schools.

But we shall not sue people for their attempts to help. The result will be obvious — lack of help when it is needed.

18 Micah Bongberg 02.07.09 at 11:04 pm

This case is unfortunate, but its good to know that California’s legislatures are already in the works of doing the right thing!

http://www.annuvia.com/Content/NewsItems/CAGoodSamaritanAnalysis_final_2_6_09.pdf

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