Good Samaritans Beware

As it turns out, Jerry Seinfeld and his cohorts in the last episode of the Seinfeld show had it right after all when they watched, but failed to come to the aid of a person being victimized. If you recall that episode, they all went to jail for failing to be Good Samaritans.

Well, a divided California Supreme Court, in deciding Van Horn v. Watson (December 18, 2008), held that not only is there no duty to come to the aid of others, but that Good Samaritans who do give assistance can be sued by the very people they try to assist. This does not seem like very good public policy to me, but it is now the law in California.

In the Van Horn v. Watson case, the plaintiff was in a car accident. The Good Samaritan, seeing liquid and smoke, and fearing that the car would explode, removed the plaintiff from the wreckage. At the end of the day, the plaintiff was rendered paraplegic. The plaintiff claimed that the Good Samaritan caused the paraplegia by removing her from the car.

In California, there is a so called Good Samaritan statute that provides immunity to "person who ... renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency" (Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102). The California Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, penned by Justice Moreno, ruled that this statute only provides immunity if the emergency care is medical care. Since pulling someone from a car is not the rendering of medical care, no immunity applied.

Personally, I think the dissent had the better argument, that the immunity provided by the statute includes, not only medical care, but any assistance, so long as there really is an emergency. In practice, this ruling encourages all of us to do just as Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer did in the last episode of Seinfeld, and simply watch as victims of emergencies suffer their fate. This goes for those who might provide medical care as well, since in order to provide that medical care, the would be Good Samaritan might have to provide other assistance (such as moving the victim) that would not constitute medical care and would subject them to liability.

The California Supreme Court does not have the last word on this however. The source of the Good Samaritan immunity is a statute and the legislature could still amend that statute to explicitly expand its reach not only to emergency medical care, but to all assistance rendered at the scene of an emergency. So, if you disagree with this ruling, contact your representatives in Sacramento.