Samaritans can be slapped with suits

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A recent court ruling in the case of a California woman who tried to help a co-worker in a car wreck shows the need for caution when being a Good Samaritan.

The woman in the car wreck is now paralyzed for life, and her would-be rescuer is facing a lawsuit.

Last week, the California Supreme Court ruled the rescuer could be sued because she was too rough with her co-worker in pulling her out of the wreck. She would have been spared from liability if she were a licensed health care provider rendering emergency medical assistance.

The state’s Good Samaritan law normally protects rescuers from liability, but only if they do not make the victim’s situation worse.

They are called Good Samaritan laws in reference to a biblical parable about a traveler from Samaria who stopped to assist an injured man lying along a roadway. The laws are intended to reduce the hesitation of bystanders who might worry about getting sued after assisting injured persons.

The ruling in the case against Lisa Torti sends a message that trained medical personnel in California can expect liability protection as long as they are doing their jobs, but other rescuers take a bigger risk.

“This decision is just a reminder,” said Adam Winkler, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor. “If you try to rescue someone, you must act with reasonable care.”

Ms. Torti was a passenger in a vehicle following behind the car in which her co-worker, Alexandra Van Horn, was riding on Nov. 1, 2004. The car slammed into a light pole at 45 mph.

Ms. Torti said in a deposition she saw smoke and liquid coming from one of the vehicles and was concerned the car was about to catch fire, prompting her to pull Ms. Van Horn from the wreckage. Other witnesses said they saw no smoke or liquid.

Ms. Van Horn’s lawsuit says the rough handling by Ms. Torti injured the victim’s vertebrae and left her paralyzed.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling said Ms. Torti handled Ms. Van Horn “like a rag doll.”

The court said no one is required to render aid to an injured person. “If, however, a person elects to come to someone’s aid, he or she has a duty to exercise due care,” according to the ruling written by Justice Carlos Moreno.

“The decision is also consistent with the trend of expanding liability to people or companies that do things negligently,” Mr. Winkler said.

Good Samaritan laws vary from state to state, but all of them offer some degree of protection from liability for well-intentioned rescuers.

Under D.C. law, anyone who helps an injured person without seeking compensation is protected from liability “for any act or omission not constituting gross negligence.”

Maryland and Virginia also require rescuers to avoid “gross negligence” in helping injured persons.

There’s no risk of criminal prosecution because “There’s not any criminal intent there,” said Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington.

The California ruling raises the question of whether bystanders might be discouraged from helping injured people in an emergency.

“This decision won’t stop people from trying to rescue others,” Mr. Winkler said. “It doesn’t say that the rescuer is liable. It only says that the injured woman can bring a suit alleging the rescuer acted improperly. Given the emergency circumstances, a jury is not likely to hold the rescuer liable.”

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