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So Much For The Law – Part I

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       The more court opinions I read, the more I am glad that I have given up the practice of law and am now a full-time neutral. While a prudent attorney will always tell her client that she cannot predict the outcome of a matter with any certainty, there are a couple of recent California Supreme Court decisions that completely defy predictability. This blog will cover the first one and next week’s will cover the second one. 

       The first, Van Horn v. Watson, Case No. S152360 (Cal. S. Ct., December 18, 2008) emasculates the “good Samaritan” rule in California. As the Supreme Court explains:

      “Under well-established common law principles, a person has no duty to come to the aid of another. (Citation omitted.) If, however, a person elects to come to someone’s aid, he or she has a duty to exercise due care. (Citation omitted.) Thus, a “good Samaritan” who attempts to help someone might be liable if he or she does not exercise due care and ends up causing harm. (Citation omitted.)  The Legislature has enacted certain statutory exceptions to this due care requirement. One such statute, Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102, immunizes any “person who. . . renders emergency care at the scene of any emergency. . . from liability for civil damages.” ” (Id. at 1-2.)


       The story begins: Plaintiff Van Horn went with defendants to a bar where they consumed several drinks over a 3½ hour period. Prior to going to the bar, plaintiff had smoked some marijuana. Upon leaving the bar, plaintiff Van Horn rode in one vehicle driven by defendant Watson, and Lisa Torti, plaintiff’s friend (who had earlier smoked some marijuana with her), rode in another vehicle driven by defendant Dion Ofoegbu. Watson, driving about 45mph, lost control of his car, crashed into a curb and light pole, causing the light pole to fall over. The front air bags deployed. Plaintiff was in the front passenger seat.

       Seeing Watson crash his vehicle, Ofoegbu pulled over, and he and Torti got out to help. Fearing that the vehicle might catch fire or blow up, Torti removed plaintiff from the vehicle.

       Emergency personnel arrived moments later and took over. However, plaintiff was permanently paralyzed.

       So, plaintiff sued Watson, Ofoegbu and Torti in negligence. Plaintiff claimed that the accident was not as dangerous as it looked to Torti such that plaintiff did not need to be pulled from the vehicle by Torti. Further, plaintiff claimed that because of the way Torti dragged her from the vehicle, it cause permanent damage to her spinal cord, rendering her a paraplegic.

       In response, Torti, moved for summary judgment, urging she was immune under California’s “good Samaritan” rule, quoted above. The trial court agreed, granting her motion.

       The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that this code section applies only to the rendering of emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency. Since Torti was not rendering medical care, she had no immunity as a “good Samaritan.”

      Unfortunately, the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court. Upon applying the rules of statutory construction, reviewing the legislative history of this particular statute and harmonizing it with the other statutes in this part of the Health and Safety Code, the Court decided that the immunity should apply only to those rendering emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency. (Id. at 4-13.)

       The Court insisted on such a narrow interpretation because to adopt Torti’s interpretation “would undermine long-standing common law principles” (Id. at 13-14) and “would render other “Good Samaritan Statutes Unnecessary Surplusage.” ” (Id. at 14.)  

         As one might suspect, this decision was not unanimous. Three justices, Baxter J., Chin J., Corrigan, J., issued a concurring and dissenting opinion. As they read this statute, its intent was to implement a sound and logical public policy: to protect a lay person, who acts as a Good Samaritan, from the threat of civil litigation, when that person reasonably perceives that another needs immediate emergency assistance and so provides it. “The purpose. . .is to encourage persons not to pass by those in need of emergency help, but to show compassion and render the necessary aid.” (Id. at dissent at 2.)

        As the dissent points out, the majority, by inserting the word “medical” into two critical places in this statute, provides immunity to those – trained or not – rendering incompetent or inept medical assistance but not to those who attempt to rescue or transport victims (i.e. non-medical aid) in an effort to save their lives and ensure they can get the medical care they need. (Id.) In short, an incompetent medical doctor or EMT person is immune from any mistakes she may make but a brave passerby who renders non-medical aid is fully exposed to civil liability if she stops to help.

      Yet, these three justices also concurred in the majority opinion because they were not thoroughly convinced that a true “emergency” existed, which is necessary to give rise to the immunity under the statute. The facts were in dispute thereby creating ambiguity about whether Torti actually and reasonably believed an “emergency” existed requiring her to extricate plaintiff from the vehicle immediately. (Id. at dissent at 13.)

       The upshot is . . . if you live in California, don’t stop to help a friend or stranger in need unless it is to give medical aid (even though you are untrained); otherwise, your kindness may beget the loss of your life’s savings and assets.

        As I said . . . I am glad I am in the business of encouraging people to participate in fashioning and creating their own solutions and making their own decisions rather than letting judges do it for them.

       . . . Stay tuned for part 2.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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