When a tragedy strikes, our instinct is to help our fellow man. A recent ruling by the California Supreme Court may cause Californians to hesitate in assisting one another in emergency situations.

As a general proposition, a person has no duty to come to another’s aid. If one comes across a person in peril, there is no obligation to stop and help. One who decides to aid another has a duty to exercise due care. A Good Samaritan who fails to exercise due care and causes harm could be liable for monetary damages.

By statute, certain classes of people like firefighters and EMT’s receive qualified immunity from liability when they render medical or non-medical care within the scope of their employment to provide emergency services. A citizen with appropriate first aid training who is asked by the authorities to assist in a search and rescue operation who then renders emergency services, in good faith, will also be immune from liability for civil damages resulting from that activity under Government Code section 50086.

In Van Horn v Watson (2008) 45 Cal.4th 322, the California Supreme Court had to decide whether a layperson volunteer who rendered emergency care at the scene of an accident was entitled to immunity from civil damages under Health and Safety Code section 1799.102.

In the Van Horn case, three women and two men travelled in two cars to a bar and had several drinks on Halloween night. On the way home, one driver lost control of his car and crashed into a curb and light pole, causing the airbags to deploy. Ms. Van Horn was his front seat passenger. The people in the second car pulled over to help.

Ms. Torti removed Ms. Van Horn from the front passenger seat. The way she did so is in dispute. Emergency personnel arrived and took Ms. Van Horn to the hospital. Ms. Van Horn suffered an injury to her vertebrae, a lacerated liver and became permanently paralyzed.

Ms. Van Horn sued, claiming Ms. Torti was negligent in removing her from the vehicle causing permanent damage to her spinal cord. Ms. Torti argued she should be protected from liability by Health and Safety Code section 1799.102. The pertinent part of the statute says: “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”

The California Supreme Court ultimately granted review to determine whether Health and Safety Code section 1799.102 provides immunity to people in Ms. Torti’s situation. The Court concluded that only persons providing emergency “medical” care at the scene of a “medical emergency” would be immune from liability, for a variety of reasons. Notably, the statute itself does not include the word “medical.” The Court was also reluctant to undermine the long-standing principle that a person who aids another should act carefully if he or she acts at all.

In this case, because Ms. Torti agreed she did not provide “medical care”, the Court concluded she was not entitled to immunity. The Court did not elaborate on what activities would constitute “emergency medical care” for purposes of immunity.

The effect of the Van Horn ruling is that Good Samaritans are treated differently based upon the type of assistance they provide. It protects a layperson who provides incompetent medical assistance; however, it exposes him to liability if he causes harm while involved in non-medical rescue or transportation efforts for the victim. One judge noted the effect of the ruling is that a passerby who, at the risk of his own life, rescues someone about to perish in a burning building can be sued for injury caused in the rescue but would be immune for harming the victim while administering CPR out on the sidewalk.

Even though the statute does not immunize a layperson for injury caused in a non-medical rescue situation, the common law continues to provide some level of protection to these Good Samaritans. Ms. Torti, while not immune from suit, would be liable only if she failed to exercise due care and that failure caused Ms. Van Horn’s injury.

In response to the Van Horn ruling, California legislators are proposing new legislation designed to protect volunteers like Ms. Torti from civil liability when rendering non-medical aid. We look forward to seeing the Legislature’s response and hope common sense prevails so people feel comfortable doing what comes naturally - - stepping in to help when and if they can.

This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Valley Business Journal