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California Supreme Court Rules Good Samaritans Can Be Sued for Giving Nonmedical Care

December 23, 2008

SACRAMENTO, CA --- The California Supreme Court last Thursday ruled that a young woman who pulled a coworker from a crashed car isn't immune from civil liability because the care she provided wasn't medical, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The court decision suggested that rescue efforts should be left to trained professionals. The ruling is also believed to be the court's first decision that someone who intervened in an accident in good faith could be sued for taking such action.

The case in question dates back to Halloween night in 2004, when a group of five department store coworkers went to a bar for a night of drinking and dancing in the San Fernando Valley. The group left the bar at 1:30 a.m. in two cars.  Alexandra Van Horn was a front-seat passenger in a car driven by Anthony Glen Watson. Lisa Torti rode in the other car, driven by Dion Ofoegbu. When Watson crashed his car into a light pole on Topanga Canyon Boulevard at about 45 mph, Ofoegbu pulled his car over, and he and Torti rushed to the aid of Watson's passengers.

In a deposition, Torti testified that she saw smoke and feared the car was about to catch fire. She said that's why she pulled the injured Van Horn from the wreckage.

In her own deposition testimony, Van Horn said Torti grabbed her arm and yanked her out "like a rag doll." Van Horn's lawsuit alleges that Torti's negligence aggravated a vertebrae injury suffered in the crash and caused permanent spinal cord damage. Van Horn is now a paraplegic. She is also suing Watson.

Torti's trial is expected next year.

The high-court decision allowing the civil trial to proceed was divided. Three of the seven justices said that by making a distinction between medical care and emergency response, the court was placing "an arbitrary and unreasonable limitation" on protections for those citizens trying to offer help, the L.A. Times reported.

In 1980, the California Legislature passed the Health and Safety Code, providing 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."

That passage of the act doesn't use the word "medical" in describing the protected emergency care. However, the description was a part of the section of the code that addresses emergency medical services. Justice Carlos R. Moreno, who wrote for the majority, found that point significant. He concluded that by placing the passage there, lawmakers intended to protect "only those persons who in good faith render emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency," he wrote.

The Supreme Court cited no previous cases involving good Samaritan actions that were later deemed unshielded by the state code.

The three dissenting justices argued that the intent of the state legislation was to "encourage persons not to pass by those in need of emergency help, but to show compassion and render the necessary aid."



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