More on the California Good Samaritan debacle

Thanks to fellow medblogger Symtym I’ve read the decision in the execrable event blogged about yesterday.

Here’s the actual text of California’s Good Samaritan Law:

California Health And Safety Code Section 1799.102

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.

I have to tell you, that seems pretty straightforward to me. You help (not for profit), you’re covered.

Now, for the problem: the decision is here (.pdf file), and it exemplifies why normal people don’t trust lawyers.

Here’s the crux of their reasoning (page 2 of the 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. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Why do they believe that to be the correct reasoning?

One can infer from the location of section 1799.102 in the Emergency Medical Services division, as well as from the title of the act of which it is a part, that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to immunize the provision of emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency.

This is remarkably obtuse; where does health and safety legislation go, except into H&S legislation.  Thank goodness it wasn’t in a farm bill, else it’d only apply on farms.

To say I disagree with this interpretation (as a non-lawyer) is a bit of an understatement.  Read the whole decision to see the tortured logic involved.

I find myself in agreement with the dissent by Baxter J (at the bottom of the decision).  He’s supposedly a liberal activist judge, but no matter, he’s right on here.

Health and Safety Code section 1799.1021 states that “[n]o 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.” (Italics added.) Nothing in this clear statement limits or qualifies the kind of emergency aid — medical or nonmedical — that an uncompensated lay volunteer may provide without fear of legal reprisal from the person he or she tried to help.

He goes on to point out the absurdity of the majority decision:

Thus, in the majority’s view, 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. A hiker can be sued if, far from other help, he or she causes a broken bone while lifting a fallen comrade up the face of a cliff to safety, but would be immune if, after waiting for another member of the party to effect the rescue, he or she set the broken bone incorrectly. One who dives into swirling waters to retrieve a drowning swimmer can be sued for incidental injury he or she causes while bringing the victim to shore, but is immune for harm he or she produces while thereafter trying to revive the victim.

The legislature wrote what it meant, in plain language.  The California Supreme Court says the plain language isn’t correct, that their intent was clearly different than that written.

Nothing good will come of this.  I can only hope the California Legislature doesn’t go broke before they can clarify their very plain language so even lawyers can understand it.

(The defendant is going to go to trial over whether her actions were negligent, which is pretty much unavoidable.  I’m told that she’ll probably win, as juries are made of more reasonable people than lawyers.  That doesn’t change the problem this decision will make for all society.)