Question:

As the safety officer of a large company, I am concerned about a change I heard about in California’s “Good Samaritan” law. Does this court case impact employers, and should we alter our safety and emergency policies in light of this case? Specifically, should our policies instruct our employees to not render assistance to others in emergency situations?

Answer:

Under California law, a person has no duty to come to the aid of another. However, if a person comes to someone else’s aid, he or she has a duty to exercise “due care.” The Legislature has adopted certain exceptions to this “due care” requirement. One such exception is the “Good Samaritan” law. This law is found in Health and Safety Code § 1799.102, and it states, in relevant part, “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.”

A recent California Supreme Court case interpreted the “Good Samaritan” law and ruled that the law only shields individuals from liability if they render emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency. This interpretation of the law has caused concern for many people, including employers who worry about being held liable if they, or their employees, render assistance to someone in need.

In the case of Van Horn v. Watson, a man lost control of his vehicle and slammed into a light pole. Lisa Torti was traveling in the car behind the vehicle that crashed. After the crash, Ms. Torti went to assist her friend Alexandra Van Horn, who was a passenger in the crashed vehicle. Ms. Torti stated she believed the crashed vehicle was going to explode or catch fire, so she removed Ms. Van Horn from the vehicle. Ms. Van Horn claimed that Ms. Torti’s actions in removing her from the vehicle caused permanent injury and rendered her a paraplegic. Ms. Van Horn sued the driver of the crashed vehicle, and Ms. Torti, claiming Ms. Torti’s actions caused Ms. Van Horn’s paralyzing injury.

Ms. Torti argued she was immune from liability under California’s “Good Samaritan” law. To the surprise of many, a majority of the Supreme Court interpreted § 1799.102 immunity to apply only to individuals rendering emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency. In its decision, the Court explained that its interpretation was based on related statutes, legislative history, and common law principles. The Court observed that the “Good Samaritan” law appears in the division of the Health & Safety Code entitled “Emergency Medical Services,” which indicates that the Legislature intended the “Good Samaritan” law to apply only to medical emergency situations. As a result, a “Good Samaritan” who renders non-medical care to an accident victim must exercise due care or be subject to liability.

Three justices disagreed with the Court’s decision, and wrote in their dissent that the majority of the Court was rewriting the “Good Samaritan” statute by requiring that the type of care rendered must be medical care, when the statute does not contain the word “medical.” The dissenting justices stated that doing so was contrary to the plain language of the statute and to the legislative intent, and that “there is no reason why one kind of lay volunteer aid should be immune, while another is not.” The dissenting justices observed that the majority’s interpretation improperly creates liability for “Good Samaritans” who provide non-medical assistance, such as emergency rescue and transportation to those in need. Finally, the dissenting justices opined that the “Good Samaritan” immunity should apply to emergency care at the scene of any emergency, not just the scene of a medical emergency.

In response to the Court’s decision, California Sen. John Benoit proposed legislation that would shield from liability “Good Samaritans” who provide any form of emergency care to those in need. Proponents of Senate Bill 39 believe that the law will encourage people to help others who are injured or in danger of being injured. However, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Van Horn v. Watson, which is the current law in California, some employers are evaluating their safety and emergency policies, especially in businesses with a high risk of injury.

This case places employers, and others, in a difficult position. On the one hand, most people feel compelled to help someone in an emergency, even if the situation is not strictly a “medical” emergency, or the aid rendered is not “medical.” On the other hand, individuals who render such aid may now be liable if they do not act with “due care” and their actions cause injury. Some employers may consider implementing a safety or emergency policy instructing employees to avoid providing non-medical emergency care to others while on duty in order to minimize the risk of liability. However, employers should carefully weigh the effect of such policies before adopting them.
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