Thinking a friend was trapped in a wrecked car that was about to explode, Lisa Torti leapt into action and pulled the woman to freedom.

But rather than being hailed as a hero, Torti was hit with a negligence suit by the victim, who claimed her rescuer’s actions either caused or contributed to permanent paralysis.

Last week, the California Supreme Court unanimously agreed to review the case to decide whether Torti should be protected by the state’s Good Samaritan law, which grants immunity from liability to individuals who render emergency care in a crisis.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Howard Schwab granted Torti summary judgment in 2005, finding she had rendered emergency care in good faith. But earlier this year, L.A.’s Second District Court of Appeal reversed, saying the Good Samaritan law only applies to people who provide emergency “medical” care.

In his response to the petition for review, Torti’s lawyer, Ronald Kent, a partner in Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Los Angeles office, claims the appeal court’s ruling “imposes unworkable distinctions that necessarily will discourage ordinary people from helping others during emergencies, including widespread disasters.”

Torti’s troubles began when she and other friends, including Alexandra Van Horn, went nightclubbing in Woodland Hills on Halloween night of 2003. At about 1:15 a.m. the group departed in two separate cars.

Soon thereafter, the vehicle in which Torti was riding came around a curve on Topanga Canyon Boulevard to discover that the car in which Van Horn was a passenger had crashed into a light pole. Torti, fearing an explosion after seeing what she thought was smoke and leaking fuel, rushed to the car and pulled Van Horn free.

Van Horn subsequently underwent surgery for a lacerated liver and a fractured vertebra. She is now paralyzed.

Van Horn sued Glen Watson, the driver of the crashed car, in May 2004, and a year later added Torti and another friend. Torti and Watson filed cross-complaints against each other.

In his petition against review, Watson’s lawyer, Edwin Brown, a partner in Irvine’s Crandall, Wade & Lowe, argued that the Good Samaritan law � codified as Health & Safety Code � 1799.102 � was intended to protect only trained emergency personnel.

“The court of appeal,” he wrote, “correctly found no legislative intent to provide immunity for non-lifesaving conduct and non-medical care by untrained individuals.”

Van Horn’s attorney, Robert Hutchinson, a partner in Beverly Hills’ Hutchinson & Snider, piled on by arguing in a separate brief that the Good Samaritan law wasn’t meant to immunize individuals whose actions are reckless or careless. He says Torti freaked out at the accident scene even after realizing there was no immediate danger.

“The law must recognize that it is human nature for people to rally to the aid of a fellow citizen in trouble,” he wrote. “And, the law must recognize that it is also human nature for some people to react badly in emergency situations either by subconsciously exaggerating the seriousness of the situation, attempting to render a service they are unqualified to perform or intentionally conjuring a need for action when none is needed in order to cloak themselves in the mantle of a ‘hero.’”

The case is Van Horn v. Watson, S152360.

Mike McKee


What could possibly put famed plaintiff firm Girardi & Keese on the same side of an issue as its past adversaries, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and big pharma? Politics, of course.

The Los Angeles law firm, the utility giant and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America have donated a combined $210,000 to the Committee for Term Limits and Legislative Reform. That’s the group with ties to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez that wants to tweak the time limits currently capping lawmakers’ tenures in Sacramento.

“I think this is the only issue that Girardi & Keese, PhRMA and PG&E have ever agreed on,” founding partner Thomas Girardi said. “Maybe this is a new beginning. Maybe this is one small step for mankind.”

Today, legislators can serve for up to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the state Senate. The Committee for Term Limits is circulating a ballot initiative that would allow lawmakers to spend just 12 years in the Legislature. But it would also allow them to serve all of those years in just one house. And it would extend term limits for legislators, like Nunez, already holding office.

Labor unions, Indian gaming tribes, trade groups and yes, the Girardi & Keese firm have poured more than $2 million altogether into the Committee for Term Limits’ campaign. Girardi & Keese may seem like an odd member in this generous group. The firm secured more than $600 million in settlements from fellow donor PG&E over groundwater contamination claims. It’s also involved in Vioxx litigation and other pharmaceutical torts.

Opponents of the term limits initiative have accused donors of signing big campaign checks to curry favor with Nunez. But Girardi insisted that he’s passionately opposed to California’s current set of term limits for legislators, calling them “a total failure” that’s shifted power in Sacramento from short-term lawmakers to special interests.

“I don’t have a dog in this hunt, other than I’m old � and I’ve been involved in Sacramento politics for 100 years and I’ve seen that this is terrible,” Girardi said.

Cheryl Miller