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California’s Good Samaritan Law – Liability for Rendering Emergency Care

by Jean-Simon Serrano

California has codified, in Health & Safety Code § 1799.102, what is sometimes referred to as a “Good Samaritan” Law. Prior to August 2009, this Section stated:

“No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”

At the time, the Section did not include such specific language; however, the intent of this law was to encourage bystanders or “Good Samaritans” to help others in need of emergency care. The California took up the issue in Van Horn v. Watson, (2008) 45 Cal. 4th 322.

In Van Horn, the defendant, Ms. Torti, removed the plaintiff, Ms. Van Horn, from a vehicle involved in an accident and, by so doing, allegedly caused her to become paralyzed. Ms. Van Horn sued Torti for negligence. Torti argued that she had provided “emergency care at the scene of an emergency” and was immune from liability under Section 1799.102. The Supreme Court of California affirmed the Court of Appeals’ finding that Section 1799.102 was intended to immunize from liability for civil damages any person who renders emergency medical care. Because, Torti testified that she removed Van Horn from her vehicle for fear that Van Horn’s car was about to explode, there was a finding that the removal did not constitute medical care and thus she could not claim the immunity in Section 1799.102.

The Court’s finding and interpretation of this Section was disappointing. It seemed that this Section was specifically created so that good Samaritans would help those in need and not fear recourse for coming to the aid of others. After the Van Horn ruling, a Good Samaritan was left to wonder, before rendering any aid to someone at the scene of an emergency, “am I rendering medical aid?” If the answer is “no,” the Samaritan may fear legal liability for assisting others and may choose not to intervene.

As a reaction to the ruling in Van Horn, Health & Safety Code § 1799.102 was amended in 2009 such that it now provides immunity for those providing “emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency.” The Section was further amended to state,

“It is the intent of the Legislature to encourage other individuals to volunteer, without compensation, to assist others in need during an emergency, while ensuring that those volunteers who provide care or assistance act responsibly.”

It seems as though this was always the intended purpose of the Section. Unfortunately for Torti, the language which previously existed in the Good Samaritan Law ensured that her good deed of removing Van Horn from a wrecked car did not go unpunished.

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