Thursday, March 22, 2007
C.A: ‘Good Samaritan’ Statute Applies Only to Medical Emergencies
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
An immunity statute protecting persons who render “emergency care at the scene of an emergency” applies only to medical emergencies, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Three reversed a summary judgment order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard J. Schwab, now retired, in favor of a woman whose attempt to help a car accident victim resulted in permanent spinal injury to the victim.
Schwab had concluded that Health and Safety Code Sec. 1799.102, a “Good Samaritan” statute that guards anyone “who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency” from civil liability, applied to shield Lisa Torti against a negligence suit by Alexandra Van Horn.
In her complaint, Van Horn alleged that Torti negligently removed her from a vehicle following a single-car accident in the early morning of November 1, 2004, and thereby caused her to suffer permanent paraplegia.
The accident occurred when Anthony Glen Watson, the driver of the car in which Van Horn was a front seat passenger, lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a curb and light standard while going about 45 miles an hour. The impact from the collision deployed the front airbags and caused Van Horn to sustain vertebral injuries.
At the time of the crash, Torti was right behind Watson’s car, riding as a passenger in a vehicle driven by Dion Ofoegbu—she, Van Horn, Watson, Watson’s backseat passenger Jonelle Freed and Ofoegbu had been socializing together at a bar prior to the accident.
Ofoegbu steered his vehicle to the side of the road when Watson’s car crashed, and he and Torti then exited in order to assist the three accident victims. Watson was able to leave the car on his own, Ofoegbu helped Freed by opening a door for her, and Torti removed Van Horn.
Removal From Car
Torti testified that she placed one arm under Van Horn’s legs and the other behind her back to lift her out of the car, while Van Horn claimed Torti grabbed her by one hand and dragged her out of the car “like a rag doll.” Torti removed the plaintiff from Watson’s car before emergency personnel arrived to the scene apparently because she feared the vehicle would catch fire or blow up.
As a result of the accident, Van Horn suffered injuries to her vertebrae and a lacerated liver, among other things, and there was a dispute as to whether her paraplegia was caused by the accident itself. Van Horn contended it was Torti’s post-accident actions that aggravated her vertebral injuries and caused her permanent spinal cord damage.
Schwab granted Torti’s summary judgment motion on the ground that she was entitled to immunity under Sec. 1799.102.
Div. Three concluded Schwab’s application of the section was incorrect.
Writing for the court, Justice H. Walter Croskey explained that the relevant definitional section in the Health and Safety Code defined an emergency as a condition or situation in which an individual “has a need for immediate medical attention, or where the potential for such need is perceived by emergency medical personnel or a public safety agency.”
The justice also pointed to the placement of the statute within the “Emergency Medical Services System” division of the Prehospital Emergency Medical Care Personnel Act.
“A general immunity statute would more likely be found in the Civil Code, and certainly would not be in a division entitled ‘Emergency Medical Services,’” he said, adding that the explicit purpose of the act was to encourage local government agencies and organizations to offer training in CPR and other lifesaving techniques that would be used to assist others at the scene of a medical emergency.
Torti’s actions toward Van Horn did not qualify as emergency medical care because any perceived risk Van Horn might have faced from remaining in the car—such as being injured in a fiery explosion—was not “medical,” Croskey reasoned.
The justice concluded that Torti’s liability must be evaluated at trial under a negligence standard pursuant to the common law Good Samaritan rule, which provides that if a person voluntarily comes to the aid of someone in harm’s way, the aider has a duty to act reasonably. Under the rule, there is no duty on bystanders to render aid, but only a duty to act reasonably if they choose to.
Croskey noted that several of the numerous other “Good Samaritan” statutes in California would be “completely superfluous” if Sec. 1799.102 were interpreted to immunize any person who rendered any type of emergency care at the scene of any type of emergency.
Presiding Justice Joan D. Klein and Justice Patti S. Kitching concurred in the opinion.
Woodland Hills attorney Jody Steinberg, one of Torti’s lawyers on appeal, told the MetNews he planned to file a petition for review with the Supreme Court, and said the decision “sends the wrong message to the people of California.”
“For the court not to interpret the statute to protect a Good Samaritan—and there’s no evidence that she was doing anything other than being a Good Samaritan in trying to help and rescue this gal—is not what the public policy in the state of California should be,” he asserted.
Van Horn’s appellate counsel, Robert B. Hutchinson of Beverly Hills, said the Court of Appeal was not harshly stripping Torti of all protection under the law.
“All the court says in this case is that this particular statute was not intended to extend to people offering mere rescue or other types of non-medical assistance,” he said.
“The defendant is still protected in that she has an argument she can make to the jury that what she did under the circumstances was reasonable.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company