Monday, December 22, 2008
Good samaritan can be sued for negligence
In a case that has attracted some national media attention, the California Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who pulled a co-worker from a crashed vehicle isn't immune from civil liability because the care she rendered wasn't medical. The case is Van Horn v. Watson. In a way, this decision is nothing new. The vast majority of jurisdictions still recognize the "no duty to help" doctrine. It has forever been criticized because it discourages strangers from providing help to people in need, but it continues to be the rule. On the other hand, to counter the effect of this doctine, most states have enacted "good samaritan statutes" that protect medical professionals --usually specifically defined by the statute -- from liability. The idea behind this approach is essentially to make sure that emergency care is left to medical professionals. What may be different in the decision by the California Supreme Court is that according to reports (I have not read the decision yet), the law there extends to "medical care" rather than to "medical professionals." In other words, if the reports are correct, the law in California offers immunity depending on the type of conduct involved rather than on the training of the person providing it. Again, I have not read the case or researched the law in California, but if that is an accurate statement, then that is different. Law.com reports that in a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter called the majority's reasoning an "arbitrary and unreasonable limitation" to the state's Good Samaritan law. "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." There are reports on this case in the Los Angeles Times and Law.com.