Jim Porter

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January 3, 2008
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The perils of doing a good deed

Alexandra Van Horn and her friends were relaxing, smoking pot at Lisa Torti's house. They all went to a bar about 10 p.m. and left just before closing time.

They were in two cars. Van Horn was a passenger in the first vehicle and Torti a passenger in the second vehicle, following closely behind.

The first vehicle spun out and crashed into a curb and light standard at about 45 mph. The front airbags deployed.

Torti in the second vehicle ran up and fearing the car was going to "blow up," removed Van Horn from the crashed car. Torti said she cradled and carefully lifted her friend out of the car. Van Horn said Torti grabbed her and pulled her out of the car "like a rag doll."

Van Horn was so appreciative of Torti's extracting her from the vehicle, she sued her good friend. She claimed Torti caused permanent damage to her spinal cord, rendering her a paraplegic.

Torti defended Van Horn's lawsuit citing the law that protects emergency caregivers from liability, which reads: "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 scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered."

The trial court ruled in favor of Torti, finding her immune from her friend's lawsuit under the emergency care statute. I.e. removing Van Horn from the car is medical care like administering CPR " the medical caregiver is 100 percent protected " even if they screw up " even if they are negligent.

Van Horn, the rescued person, appealed to the Court of Appeal claiming that Torti did not render emergency medical care, but merely pulled her from the vehicle " as she said " dragged her from the vehicle, further worsening her spinal injury. I.e. there is no emergency medical care immunity. The court then looked at California's Good Samaritan law.

California has a Good Samaritan law, a different law protecting rescuers: Generally that no one has a duty to come to the aid of another unless there is some special relationship between the rescuer and the rescued; and if anyone volunteers to assist another, that volunteer is not liable, even if negligent, unless he/she increases the risk of the injured person's harm or the harm is suffered because the injured person relies upon the volunteer.

The Good Samaritan law provides less protection to a rescuer than the emergency medical caregiver law.

The issue in the Van Horn v. Torti case is which law applied " the absolute emergency medical caregiver law or the lesser Good Samaritan law. Under the Good Samaritan law, Torti would be liable if she increased the risk of harm to Van Horn, such as dragging her out of the car "like a rag doll" when she had an injured back.

On the other hand, if Torti rendered emergency medical care to Van Horn, Torti is completely immune from liability, rag doll dragging or not.

The Court of Appeal found that Torti did not provide emergency medical care to Van Horn, so she was not fully immune from a lawsuit. Unlike performing CPR or splinting a broken arm or back, pulling someone from a car crash is not emergency medical care " or so ruled the Court of Appeal.

It is up to a jury to determine whether Torti was or was not negligent in how she removed Van Horn from the car and whether her actions further injured her (former) friend. Van Horn's suit was reinstated.

I tend to think the Court of Appeal got this one wrong. Torti should be protected as a person who in good faith rendered emergency medical care at the scene of an emergency, which immunity is more protective than the limited Good Samaritan law.

The moral here is if you are rescuing/helping someone in an emergency, be sure and administer some medical care. Carry Band-Aids!

The case is being reviewed by the California Supreme Court, so we will know in a few months.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jan 3, 2008 11:29PM Published Jan 3, 2008 11:27PM Copyright 2008 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.