California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two bills this August that help clarify the state's Good Samaritans statute following a December 2008 court decision that put the scope of the law's protections into question.
At common law, there is no duty to rescue another person, even if it is clear that the person will die without help. The duty may arise, however, if the two people have a special relationship with one another, like parent and child or husband and wife. If a person without one of these special relationships decides to help another, he or she must exercise reasonable care in rendering the aid. If the injured person is further harmed because the person providing help did not exercise reasonable care, then the injured person can sue for civil damages.
Since the common law rule provides little incentive to people to help one another in emergency situations, the majority of states have passed laws — known as Good Samaritans statutes — to make exceptions to this rule. Under California's Good Samaritan statute (Health & Safety Code §1799.102), those who act in good faith to provide emergency care at the scene of an emergency are immune from civil liability.
However, the extent of this immunity and to whom it applies came into question late last year, following a decision issued by the California Supreme Court.
Van Horn v Watson: Medical Care and Nonmedical Care
In a December 2008 case, the California Supreme Court narrowed the application of the Good Samaritans statute. In Van Horn v. Watson, the court held that the legislature only intended for the statute to provide immunity to those who rendered emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency and not those who provided nonmedical care or assistance.
In Van Horn, the defendant Lisa Torti pulled her friend Alexandra Van Horn out of a car following an accident. Torti claimed she removed Van Horn from the car because she feared it was going to catch on fire or explode. Van Horn suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident, including permanent paralysis. She claimed that by removing her from the car, Torti had exacerbated her injuries and caused the irreversible damage to her spinal cord.
Torti claimed she was immune from civil liability for Van Horn's injuries under the Good Samaritans law. The trial court agreed. On appeal, however, the court reversed the lower court's decision and found that the statute did not apply to Torti because she provided nonmedical rather than medical care. The California Supreme Court later upheld the appellate court's decision.
By narrowing the application of the state's Good Samaritans law, the California Supreme Court sent a message to citizens of the state: to provide help following an accident is to risk civil liability.
The Legislature Amends the Good Samaritans Law
Upset over the court's interpretation of the legislature's intent in passing the Good Samaritans statute, two bills were quickly submitted by the legislature to reverse the Van Horn v. Watson ruling.
In the General Assembly, Assembly Bill 83 was introduced within one week of the Van Horn decision. The bill proposed an added provision to the Health & Safety Code to provide immunity from civil liability for anyone who provides medical and/or nonmedical care or assistance at the scene of an emergency.
However, the bill also provided an exception from coverage for anyone who acted with "gross negligence" or "willful or wanton misconduct" in providing emergency medical or nonmedical care.
- Under California law, gross negligence is defined as "an exercise of so slight a degree of care as to justify the belief there was indifference to the interest and welfare of others."
- Willful or wanton misconduct is defined as "conduct by a person who may have no intent to cause harm, but who intentionally performs an act so unreasonable and dangerous that he or she knows or should know it is highly probable that harm will result."
A second bill was introduced in the State Senate to clarify the extent of disaster relief workers' immunity from civil liability. Civil Code §1714.5 provides immunity to disaster service workers whenever they are acting within the scope of their responsibilities at the direction of a government emergency organization.
Both bills became effective immediately once the governor signed them into law in August. The state legislature moved so quickly to pass the laws because of the importance it placed on encouraging citizens to help one another during emergencies. It feared the Van Horn decision would result in people withholding assistance out of concern that they could be sued for their actions.
If you have been involved in a car accident or have questions about the applicability of California's Good Samaritans law, contact a knowledgeable attorney today.