California Supreme Court Says Go Ahead And Punish Those Good Deeds

In a controversial 4-3 ruling the California Supreme Court has ruled that private citizens who try to help out in an emergency situation can be sued for damages or injuries resulting from those efforts. The case stemmed from an incident in 2004 when a group of co-workers went out for some Halloween fun.

Adult beverages were consumed and one of the two cars crashed into a light pole, injuring the occupants. Those in the second car came over to help and one of those people saw smoke and liquid coming from the damaged vehicle. Fearing that there could be a fire or explosion, she pulled one of the injured from the car. The injured person had damage to her spine and the pulling motion left her a paraplegic.

The rescuer also says that she tried to be careful in moving the injured person from the vehicle while others dispute the rescuer’s version of the events, saying that they did not see smoke and that the rescuer was not as gentle as she says that she was.

In either case, the injured person/plaintiff responded to the incident by not only to suing the driver of the car but also her co-worker (commentary on what kind of person sues someone who was risking their own safety can be saved for another post) and the other driver. The would-be rescuer tried to defend herself based on California law.

The law was passed in 1980 as part of the the Health and Safety Code and provides that “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.”

Today the Supremes ruled that, while this section does not specifically mention medicine or medical services, because it was contained in the area covering medical services that it only applies to those providing medical help and does not apply to other aid (presumably meaning you can apply a band aid but not pull someone from flames).

In essence they rely more on the surrounding language than on the text of the specific section

The three dissenting justices held that the aim of the legislation was clearly intended to allow people to provide needed aid, pointing out that the ruling allows a non doctor to provide medical aid but not to save you from drowning. They also point out that since the other sections specifically mentioned medical but this section did not that it was intended to cover any aid provided.

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).

The ruling can be found here. I can see some logic on both sides though perhaps the legislature could resolve it all by passing a clear and unambiguous Good Samaritan law.

  

Author: PATRICK EDABURN, Assistant Editor

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