Lawmakers are rushing to introduce legislation that would offer greater legal protections to Good Samaritans in light of a recent California Supreme Court decision.
Legislators from both parties have introduced three bills to address Van Horn v. Watson, 08 C.D.O.S. 15199, which held that a state statute only shields rescuers from liability if they provide medical care in an emergency situation. The ruling puts at risk aid-givers who inadvertently hurt victims while removing them from a burning building or other potentially dangerous scenarios.
"It's ludicrous to suggest, just by way of example, that if I dive into a swimming pool to rescue someone and I break their arm dragging them out I'm liable for their injuries, but if I break their ribs while giving them CPR, I'm OK," said Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia. Adams has authored a bill that would extend the same legal protection to any Good Samaritan offering "medical or non-medical" emergency care.
The Van Horn case stems from a 2003 car accident in the Los Angeles area. Passenger Lisa Torti pulled her injured friend, Alexandra Van Horn, out of what she thought was a smoldering car at risk of exploding. Van Horn was left a paraplegic and sued Torti as well as the car's driver for negligence.
Torti sought immunity under California's Health and Safety Code §1799.102, a general Good Samaritan provision. But the 2nd District Court of Appeal said the protections didn't apply to Torti because she wasn't providing emergency medical care to her friend. A bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed.
"As a [former] CHP commander, I rolled up on the scene of many accidents and very often people were there rendering help," said state Sen. John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, who has also authored a bill challenging the Van Horn ruling. "We wouldn't want that type of thing to stop."
Benoit's legislation would immunize Good Samaritans from civil damages if they offer any type of care at an emergency scene. The bill specifically exempts workers in hospital emergency rooms and "other places where emergency care is usually offered."
Benoit said he is working to fuse his bill with one introduced by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a former legal aid attorney. Feuer's legislation addresses Van Horn, too, although his bill doesn't offer any specific language yet.
"He's a good guy, and I think he's as concerned as anyone else," Benoit said. "With my experience in the CHP and his background in the legal community, we'll make a good case."
Adams said he would keep his bill independent of the others and predicted that trial lawyers would fight any attempt to extend the Good Samaritan liability shield.
"You're going to get trial lawyers all over the place on this," Adams said.
The Consumer Attorneys of California have not taken a position yet on any of the legislation.