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.)


Comments

  1. I agree with you. Many good people who would have stopped to help now may very well not.

  2. Nicely put.

    I gave it my own spin at California Good Samaritans Hunted to Extinction By Lawyers.

    It seems that the intent of the law was not to encourage Good Samaritans.

  3. When I discussed this case in the surgeons lounge last night (Call sucked!) Every one seemed to have heard second hand of a case where a physician stopped to render aid and was sued but when I did a quick internet search I could not find any cases. This may be just my inability to search well but I think it would be interesting to identify if there are cases of this type and if so to post them. I hope that we can tell if the “Good Samititan Laws” have actually worked and that we are scared of lawsuits because of “Urban legends” or find out if the trial attorneys found a way through this as well.

  4. I think it’s a bit more complex than this. One question here is about rendering help when help is not imminently needed. In this accident, if the vehicle was on fire or sinking in water it would be one thing, but if the vehicle is stable, gasoline isn’t pouring out somewhere, people should know to leave things alone. One of the first things EMTs learn is to not immediately yank someone out of their vehicle.

    There does need to be some sense about not forcefully rescuing someone in a way to cause injury. Imagine that someone had his neck fractured, but still had an intact spinal cord, but a zealous rescuer caused quadriplegia or death. The first thing to do in an accident is sense whether the best thing to do is to wait for EMS to assist and not just dive in doing things.

    Unfortunately, the law has a way of totally screwing up things, and regardless of the outcome of this case, it will be hard to come up with any logical conclusions.

  5. Lawyers are good of finding ways to sue someone even that someone was just trying to help. I wish those lawyers will always wear a tag that says “Lawyer” so ordinary people won’t help rescue them in case of emergencies. It’s not good to help someone and be sued.

  6. She didn’t “help” her. The victim was not in any danger from the crashed car. She is now paralyzed because of this “help”. If you physicians were sitting in a crashed car and in no evident danger, and an untrained person yanked you out of it and you were paralyzed you can bet you would be suing too.

    The logical conclusion is not to go yanking on people who have been in a car wreck if they’re not in immediate danger and you’re not trained. Not sure how that’s a “screwed up” decision.

    And as for the theory that all doctors know another physician who has been sued for rendering emergency care, the reason the poster can’t find any cases is likely because they don’t exist. Urban legends are exactly the kind of “evidence” physicians usually utilize in discussing legal matters.

  7. Oh, and the “good samaritan” had been drinking that night. I hope you physicians do a better job of getting all the facts before rendering a decision in the medical realm than you do in the legal.

  8. It is always enjoyable to see, though, how one decision out of the thousands handed down each day in thousands of courts in the country is an indictment on the whole legal system and all lawyers, no matter what area of practice.

    Let a physician screw up though, or let the medical industry harm someone, and the person who did it stands alone. What’s a little double standard among friends, eh?

  9. Maybe she made a bad call in trying to do what she thought was helping her, but that’s basic human nature. Her first thought may have been- the car hit with a high impact at high speed, so the gas tank will explode (a possibility, but probably not likely). Or maybe the car was in the road still and she feared another car would hit it and crush Van Horn? I don’t see how you can make a ruling based on the argument that the wording of the legislation means A but not precisely B. What is the meaning of the word “is” sort of thing.

    After hearing about this, I think this will cause some people to never take a risk to begin with. I might have to choose to let someone burn alive for fear of ruining my own life, the lives of my family members, my friends, etc.

    The legal reasoning was absurd- she wasn’t protected under the law because pulling her out of the car wasn’t a medical act, yet if she gave her CPR when she got her out of the car, that IS medical help? So, if someone is being crushed inside a car, you can give CPR, but you can’t get them out of the car to do the CPR? THAT insane semantical argument is why I think people tend to dislike attorneys…it’s sort of inherent in their job to think of absurd loopholes to try to pull off in front of some judges.

    Maybe educating people on what they generally should and should not do is a good idea. Getting the courts involved? Not so much. I’m no legal scholar, but I can’t imagine the purpose of any law is to punish people for doing what comes naturally in the spirit of helping fellow humans.

  10. She didn’t “help” her. The victim was not in any danger from the crashed car. She is now paralyzed because of this “help”. If you physicians were sitting in a crashed car and in no evident danger, and an untrained person yanked you out of it and you were paralyzed you can bet you would be suing too.

    Another thing on this:

    The complaint is that the woman is untrained in assisting someone medically. If she doesn’t have the training to give medical help, could it not be just as easily argued that she has no perfect way of knowing if medical danger exists to begin with?
    She was probably not an expert in cars or gas tanks, so she had no expert way of knowing cars don’t usually blow up, even though they do frequently in the movies.

    Should we base these sorts of laws on whether the person is trained or not? I can see the argument now– I didn’t help the woman I saw being stabbed, because I’m not trained in law enforcement (or fighting for that matter). I’d hope those around me don’t make this argument for not helping me.

  11. “Maybe she made a bad call in trying to do what she thought was helping her, but that’s basic human nature.”

    She had been drinking. Is that basic human nature to yank people out of crashed cars when there is no emergency and you’ve been drinking?

    ” I don’t see how you can make a ruling based on the argument that the wording of the legislation means A but not precisely B.”

    Read the ruling. It’s quite clear how they arrived at their decision. Don’t mistake your disagreement with misunderstanding. You find it insane simply because it doesn’t agree with you, assuming you’re the arbiter of common sense for all.

    “Getting the courts involved? Not so much.”

    The courts aren’t involved because they’re educating people on what they should do. They’re involved because this woman’s actions may have resulted in the victim being paralyzed and the victim is requesting damages for her injury. Now, we don’t know that she wouldn’t have been paralyzed anyway, but that question is not before this court at this time. This court simply said when it’s not an emergency, and you’re not trained to do something, if you’re negligent in your actions then this particular statute will not be an automatic defense.

  12. “Should we base these sorts of laws on whether the person is trained or not?”

    Perhaps not, but that’s an argument for the legislature. The court only gets to decide if the statute is constitutional, not if it’s good public policy in this case.

    “The complaint is that the woman is untrained in assisting someone medically.”

    No, the complaint is that the woman’s “assistance” was negligent, most likely because she had been drinking and failed to accurately assess the situation. You don’t get a free pass from the harm you cause simply because it was an honest mistake if your actions fall below the standard of care. And you get even less of a free pass if you have chosen to become impaired before acting.

  13. Matt,

    The majority decision limited the protection of the Good Samaritan law to only medical< acts and only at a medical emergency. The word medical does not appear anywhere in the Good Samaritan law, except to state that it does not apply at medical facilities.

    The minority dissent found that she did not have immunity from liability. The minority justices did not feel the need to rewrite the law to come to this conclusion. They appear to have been appropriately concerned about the actions of this drunk and stoned person. They decided that the way the law is written does not protect her.

    Expect that the law will be rewritten, by those who write the laws. The Good Samaritan law will end up stating what it originally did, but with wording to prevent misinterpretation by the Supreme Court.

  14. Rogue

    Correction, I did not state anything about “exemption.” There is no common law immunity for rescuers. California, via the State’s EMS Act, offered special immunity for those participating in the State’s EMS system as a quid pro quo to the formation of a State EMS system. The contention that “[t]he purpose of the law is to encourage people to help their neighbors, without a fear of the legal consequences[,}” is wishful thinking and at odds with the stated intent of the State’s EMS Act. Additionally.

  15. Symtym,

    I guess we will find out when those, who write the laws, meet next year.

    If you are correct, they will ignore the ruling of the Supreme Court, since that 4:3 majority ruling will have expressed their intent.

    If I am correct, they will rewrite the law so that it is much more clear, even to the Supreme Court, that the Good Samaritan law applies to everyone trying to help others at emergency scenes.

    Care to place some sort of wager on the outcome? (Nothing financial, of course, since that would not be legal.)

  16. Rogue

    Safe bet, there is ZERO chance that this will be addressed by the Legislature for reasons already stated. The Supreme Court interpreted the law correctly. Passing legislation, especially passing legislation that confers immunity for tortious acts is the height of constitueny politics. There are no constituenices affected by this ruling, and therefore, no legislation. The historical situation (surrounding the EMS Act) can not be dismissed. The Legislature wanted to create something (a statewide EMS system in 1980) from many entities (58 counties and thousands of agencies), many of which disliked each other and the State most of all. They wanted something on the table for them to play—immunity was “something.” If it applies to everyone, then it has no value—no value, no play, no quid pro quo. If everybody has immunity, then there is no reason to join the statewide system. Same thing with police and firefighting, they are given certain immunities that are part-and-parcel with the job. Off the job, they don’t have those immunities. I served on the State’s EMS Commission (also created by the EMS Act) for 9 years—I do have some familiarity with this topic.

  17. Symtym,

    There are no constituenices affected by this ruling, and therefore, no legislation.

    If that were the case, there would not be so many blog posts on the topic. There is a huge constituency for this.

    I guess we will have to disagree about this topic and wait to see which of us is correct.

    Since you served on the EMS Commission, perhaps you can explain one of the oddities about California EMS. The rule may have changed since I left. When transporting to a hospital outside of the county in which a paramedic is based, on the return the paramedic may not provide ALS care until back in the paramedic’s home county. Even if the paramedic is certified in the other county, as well. How does such a rule affect a duty to act?

  18. Rogue

    Discussions in blogs doesn’t equal a constituency (that overstates the importance of blogs and understate the legislative process). A constituency that is going to get legislation passed needs: (lots of) money and an organizational structure. To get any immunity through the Legislature you will have the most well funded opposition imaginable: trial lawyers. So again, you have zero chance on this! Remember this has been the law for 28 year! Nothing new, only the sensationalism of the media and the defense counsel’s trial tactics. This will go back to trial in the lower court for a determination of negligence by the jury.

    The EMS Commission is not involved with inter-agency protocol variances.

  19. Symtym,

    I think that the blogging about this indicates a lot of interest. Interest may equal a constituency. Only one way to find out. Wait and see. :-)

  20. Rogue, I think you overstate the reach of medical blogs. Go see how much has been actually accomplished on the myriad of other things physicians bitch about.

  21. Symtym,

    Bad boy list? Were your comments not appearing?

    Matt,

    I’m not claiming that medical bloggers are having a dramatic influence. This is something that has attracted a lot of attention from all types of bloggers, the evening news, and casual conversation.

    I think that this is something that matters to the public. Even if people do not see themselves helping someone else, for whatever reason, they do not like the idea of nobody helping them, or their friend, or their parent, or their child.

    Because of this, I expect that there will be pressure to do something in the next legislative session. While there is no clear constituency, and no money behind it, people will not want to be seen as against Good Samaritans.

  22. Well, it looks as if you have solved that problem.

    One of your comments appeared in my email last night, but was not in the comments a little after 10 PM, your time. It was listed as coming from the comments to California gets even more screwed up: predictably, Good Samaritans (Decent People) hardest hit.

  23. Ahh… CuriousJD has weighed in. The circle is complete.

  24. “This is something that has attracted a lot of attention from all types of bloggers, the evening news, and casual conversation.”

    And it will pass by the end of the week as the news cycle wears on. But hey, we’ll see when the CA legislature gets in session. Given the massive financial shortfall the state faces, I’m betting that allowing drunks more leeway to “help” people who don’t actually need it won’t be real high on the list.

    Odds?

  25. Matt,

    I agree that this is something that will behave as other news stories do. I expect that it will be something that is important enough to some people to bring up when they meet. I do not think that there is the opposition to by-standers helping people during non-medical emergencies, or helping with non-medical care.

    I have not suggested that the drunk and stoned, as I have consistently described Torti, be immune from liability. I have consistently stated that I agree with the minority dissent – they did not find that there was reason to believe that she acted reasonably, therefore they did not see the Good Samaritan law protecting her actions. Her particular behavior is not to be encouraged.

    I think that there are a lot of people who would stop and help others. This is something that would discourage some of them.

    Odds?

    Why complicate things? I am not an odds maker. I do not make a lot of predictions, because there are many things that influence the future. Many of these influences are unpredictable. Giving odds suggests that I have the ability to predict a lot of these things. I am working on a post about bad prediction.

    I do think that there will be enough interest in this, if only from people in charitable organizations, that it will be addressed. While there may not be any money behind this, who wants to receive publicity for voting no on a Good Samaritan law?

  26. Frank Drackman says:

    So if I just had a Martini I shouldn’t give someone CPR or the Heimlich? Wouldn’t do it stone cold sober either, you never know what viruses John/Jane Q. Public is carrying.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Vote More on the California Good Samaritan debacle [...]

  2. [...] on the California Good Samaritan debacle Posted on December 21, 2008 by coptermedic From GruntDoc (with an assist from [...]

  3. [...] Doc has a good rundown in More on the California Good Samaritan debacle. The decision was that a good Samaritan ended up being held liable for pulling a victim out of a [...]

  4. [...] think twice about offering to help. Docbloggers have been discussing the decision since then, with GruntDoc siding with the dissent, SymTym countering on behalf of the majority, and Throckmorton reporting [...]

  5. [...] link here shows us why lawyers cannot be trusted, and why most of them need to be taken out back behind the shed and put down like ol yeller. How [...]

  6. [...] GruntDoc Blog has the best comment on this farce: 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. [...]

  7. [...] The days of sit still and pray are over, they died on September 11th.  Now let’s hope he doesn’t get sued: he was being a Good Samaritan, after all, but wasn’t rendering medical aid. [...]