Under well-established common law principles, a person has no duty to come to the aid of another. If, however, a person elects to come to someone’s aid, he or she has a duty to exercise due care. Thus, a “Good Samaritan” who attempts to help someone might be liable if he or she does not exercise due care and ends up causing harm. The Legislature has enacted certain statutory exceptions to this due care requirement. (citations omitted).
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:
“No person who in good faith, and not for compensation,renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civildamages resulting from any act or omission. The scene of an emergency shall notinclude emergency departments and other places where medical care is usuallyoffered.”
The Supreme Court ruling?
We hold that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to immunize from liability for civil damages any person who renders emergency medical care. Torti does not contend that she rendered emergency medical care and she may not, therefore, claim the immunity in section 1799.102.
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.