Monday, March 25, 2013

Good Samaritan Statute; Interpreted, Amended

The California Supreme Court has essentially written the script of your lecture on Good Samaritan Laws:

However, the next line of your lecture may differ from the court's ruling in Van Horn v. Torti quoted above. Normally, as long as the Good Samaritan acts in "good faith," a Good Samaritan statute will insulate her from liability for simple negligence.  However, when dealing with state statutes, generalizations can be misleading.

On Halloween night on 2005, Lisa Torti, Alexandra Van Horn and other friends spent their time smoking pot and drinking. Around 1;30 AM, they headed home. Van Horn was a passenger in a car that was travelling ahead of the car in which Torti was a passenger. The lead car crashed into a pole. Torti testified that she saw smoke from the car and feared it would "blow up." her testimony was contradicted by witnesses. Nevertheless, motivated by a desire to help her friend, Torti pulled Van Horn from the car. the unfortunate result  of that action was that van Horn's vertebral injury was exacerbated resulting in paraplegia.

Van Horn sued the ironically named Torti. Torti claimed the protection of the California Good Samaritan statute, which reads as follows: 

The Supreme Court ruling?

So, there is the lesson: The Common Law says rescuers are liable for negligence.  The legislatures step in to provide immunity.  But, if you don't fall squarely within the statute as interpreted by the court, then you fall back into the Common Law rule.

The final lesson may be that when a court interprets a statute based on the presumed intent of the legislature, the legislature is free to amend the law if the collective sense is that the court got it wrong.  That is just what the California legislature did with their Good Samaritan Statute, which now protects those "render[ing] emergency medical or nonmedical care." 

Is that the best decision, as a policy matter? Read here.

Here's a well-intentioned Good Samaritan making a situation worse:

Good Samaritan Song:

The unfortunate Seinfeld episode: What a Good Samaritan law is not.


  1. The holding of the Van Horn case was reversed by the California legislature and governor in August 2009, who clearly stated then that medical AND NONMEDICAL aid given at the scene of an emergency, without gross negligence, is immune from lawsuit.

  2. Thank you for this important update. The case is still illustrative of the statutory interpretation process.