Would-be heroes were warned by the California Supreme Court on Thursday that they could be liable for damages if they inadvertently injure a person while attempting a rescue.
In a 4-3 ruling, the high court held that a state statute immunizing rescuers from liability applies only if the individual is providing medical care in an emergency situation. It doesn't apply when Good Samaritans accidently cause injuries while, for example, pulling someone out of a burning house or diving into swirling waters to save a drowning swimmer.
"After all," Justice Carlos Moreno wrote for the majority, "if the 'scene of an emergency' ... means a scene where 'an individual has a need for immediate medical attention' ... it logically follows that the Legislature intended for the phrase 'emergency care' ... to refer to the medical attention given to the individual who needs it."
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter called the majority's reasoning an "arbitrary and unreasonable limitation" on Health and Safety Code §1799.102, a statute protecting Good Samaritans that was adopted in 1980.
"In the majority's view," Baxter wrote, "a passerby who, at the risk of his or her own life, saves someone about to perish in a burning building can be sued for incidental injury caused in the rescue, but would be immune for harming the victim during the administration of cardiopulmonary resuscitation out on the sidewalk."
He argued that nothing in the statute "limits or qualifies the kind of emergency aid -- medical or non-medical -- that an uncompensated lay volunteer may provide without fear of legal reprisal from the person he or she tried to help."
Justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan concurred.
The case was spawned by a botched rescue attempt by Lisa Torti, who pulled a friend, Alexandra Van Horn, out of a wrecked car in the Los Angeles area on Halloween night of 2003. Torti claimed she saw smoke and thought the car was about to explode.
Van Horn was left a paraplegic, and blamed Torti's efforts to help her. She sued Torti and Anthony Watson, the driver of the wrecked car, for negligence.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Howard Schwab granted summary judgment for Torti, finding she was immune from liability under §1799.102. L.A.'s 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed last year, ruling that Torti hadn't truly provided emergency medical care.
Thursday's ruling in Van Horn v. Watson, 08 C.D.O.S. 15199, affirmed the appeal court. And even though he disagreed with the majority's interpretation of the statute, Baxter also sided with affirming the appeal court because he believed there are "triable issues whether Torti rendered, or actually and reasonably believed she was rendering, 'emergency care at the scene of an emergency.'"
The case goes back to the trial court for further proceedings.
Torti's lawyer, Ronald Kent, a partner in Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal's Los Angeles office, didn't respond to a telephone call seeking comment.
Robert Hutchinson, a partner in Beverly Hills, Calif.'s Hutchinson & Snider who represented Van Horn, said the ruling won't deter Good Samaritans.
"People are going to be motivated to come to the aid of others or not," he said. "If you're confronted with an emergency situation, the logical reaction is to help.
"This was a very unusual situation," he added, "in which my client was literally, quote, dragged out of her car like a rag doll by a young woman who was in a state of panic."
Edwin Brown, a partner in Irvine, Calif.'s Crandall, Wade & Lowe who represented the driver of the car, was pleased with the ruling, too. A reversal would have left his client as the only defendant.
"Our position is that the common law still gives any rescuer protection," Brown said, "if they don't make the problem worse."
Appellate specialist Lisa Perrochet, a partner with Encino, Calif.'s Horvitz & Levy who wasn't involved in the case, had what will likely be the average person's take on the ruling:
"Remind me not to try to help anyone escape from burning buildings or fast-flowing rivers," she said in an e-mail. But in a follow-up message, she added that in hindsight reasonable people could disagree.
"If it's not an emergency that requires quick thinking to avoid serious injury," Perrochet said, "then one should apply the regular rule that if you offer aid you'd better be doing it non-negligently."