Friday, December 19, 2008
Allegedly Negligent Rescuer Not Entitled to Immunity—S.C.
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a “Good Samaritan” law granting immunity from liability for civil damages only applies to persons who provide emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency.
The state high court concluded that Lisa Torti was not entitled to summary judgment in a suit by Alexandra Van Horn, who claims she was injured when Torti negligently pulled Van Horn from a vehicle following a car accident.
On Halloween night 2004, Van Horn, Torti and Jonelle Freed were at Torti’s home smoking marijuana, according to evidence presented in connection with the summary judgment motion. After Anthony Glen Watson and Dion Ofoegbu arrived, the group went to a bar where they consumed several drinks.
Van Horn and Freed left the bar in a car driven by Watson. Ofoegbu and Torti left in a separate vehicle.
Watson subsequently lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a curb and light pole while traveling at approximately 45 miles per hour. The light pole fell over and the vehicle’s air bags deployed.
Ofoegbu and Torti exited their vehicle and went to Watson’s car. Torti testified at deposition that she had placed one arm under Van Horn’s legs and another behind Van Horn’s back and carried Van Horn from the car because she saw smoke and liquid coming from Watson’s vehicle and feared the vehicle would catch fire or “blow up.”
Other witnesses testified that there were no indications that the vehicle might explode and that Torti had placed Van Horn directly beside the disabled car. Van Horn also claimed that Torti pulled her from the vehicle by grabbing her by the arm and yanking her out “like a rag doll.”
Van Horn was left permanently paralyzed and filed a negligence suit against Torti. She alleged that she was not in need of assistance after the accident and that Torti had caused permanent damage to her spinal cord by dragging her from the vehicle.
Torti moved for summary judgment, arguing that she was immune from liability under Health and Safety Code Sec. 1799.102, which provides that “[n]o 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.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard J. Schwab, who has since retired, granted the motion, but Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the Legislature intended for Sec. 1799.102 to only apply to the rendering of emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency.
Writing for the state high court, Justice Carlos R. Moreno acknowledged that the plain language of Sec. 1799.102 was susceptible to the interpretation that it was applicable to both non-medical and medical care rendered at the scene of an emergency, but that a narrower construction was more consistent with the statutory scheme of which it was a part.
Moreno noted that Sec. 1799.102 was located in a division of the Health and Safety Code entitled “Emergency Medical Services,” which was enacted as the Emergency Medical Services System and the Prehospital Emergency Medical Care Personnel Act, and the stated purpose of the act was “to provide the state with a statewide system for emergency medical services.”
Read in conjunction with Sec. 1799.100—which provides that “no local agency, entity of state or local government, or other public or private organization which sponsors, authorizes, supports, finances, or supervises the training of people, or certifies those people… shall be liable for any civil damages alleged to result from those training programs”—Moreno reasoned that Secs. 1799.100 and 1799.102 were intended to immunize those who train persons in emergency medical care and then immunize the persons who actually render such care.
Because Sec. 1797.70’s defined an “emergency” as “a condition or situation in which an individual has a need for immediate medical attention,” Moreno said, “it logically follows that the Legislature intended for the phrase ‘emergency care’ in section 1799.102 to refer to the medical attention given to the individual who needs it.”
Although the Legislature broadly defined the phrase “emergency services” in Sec. 1799.107(e) as including medical and non-medical services provided by public entities and emergency rescue personnel, Moreno noted that the Legislature had expressly limited the definition’s application to that provision and concluded that “it would make little sense for the Legislature to explicitly limit the application of section 1799.107’s broad definition if it intended for section 1799.102 to be read in similarly expansive terms.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Kathryn M. Wedegar concurred with Moreno. Justice Marvin Baxter, joined by Justices Ming W. Chin and Carol A. Corrigan, authored a separate opinion agreeing that summary judgment should have been denied but rejecting the majority’s interpretation of the statute.
“A statute’s plain language is a dispositive indicator of its meaning unless a literal reading would lead to absurd consequences the Legislature did not intend,” Baxter argued, maintaining that nothing in the plan language of Sec. 1799.102 limited or qualified the kind of aid that a person could provide without fear of legal reprisal.
He suggested that omission of the word “medical” in Sec. 1799.102 was not inadvertent, but purposeful, and criticized the majority opinion for “rewrit[ing] section 1799.102 to insert the word ‘medical’ at two crucial points where it does not appear....”
But Baxter agreed with the majority’s conclusion that Torti was not entitled to summary judgment because there were triable issues of fact as to whether Torti rendered, or actually and reasonably believed she was rendering, emergency care at the scene of an emergency because of the differing accounts as to the risk of fire or explosion posed by the disabled car.
Beverly Hills attorney Robert B. Hutchinson represented Van Horn. Ronald D. Kent and Sekret T. Sneed of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal represented Torti, along with Jody Steinberg and Lisa Mead of Hanger, Levine & Steinberg.
The case is Van Horn v. Watson, 08 S.O.S. 6769.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company