By Peter H. Crossin, Esq.

So who was the first Good Samaritan President? As we all know, the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey has become an annual event. The first president to unofficially pardon a turkey was Abraham Lincoln, who instructed the White House to save a bird given to the president. Lincoln’s son had grown fond of the bird, and the president was a well-known animal lover. The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when President George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped, “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy — he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.” Thus, the tradition has evolved on each Thanksgiving day to rescue the presidential Turkey from its imminent peril.

Since its first known derivation in 1843, Good Samaritans have been known as those who, with no legal duty to do so, help another person in emergency need. In California, under well-established common law principles, there is no duty to rescue or assist another person who is in danger or in an emergency situation. This means that you cannot be held liable for not coming to the aid of another person in the throes of an emergency situation. (Artiglio v. Corning, Inc. (1998) 18 Cal.4th 604, 613). As explained in the Restatement Second of Torts, “The origin of the rule lay in the early common law distinction between action and inaction, or ‘misfeasance’ and ‘non-feasance.’ ” (Rest.2d Torts, § 314, com. c, p. 116). Courts were more concerned with affirmative acts of misbehavior than with an individual “who merely did nothing, even though another might suffer serious harm because of his omission to act.” (Ibid.) Of course, society is made better when persons may be assured that rendering aid to another will not result in adverse unintended consequences.

An example of such unintended consequences occurred in the case of Van Horn v. Watson (2008) 45 Cal.4th 322. The facts arose from a car accident that occurred on a Halloween night in the early morning of November 1, 2004. Alexandra Van Horn lost control of her car and drove into a light pole. One of Van Horn’s friends, Lisa Torti, who was traveling in another car, stopped to help. Torti, in the role of a Good Samaritan, stated she tried to rescue Van Horn because she believed the damaged car was in danger of catching fire and exploding. Van Horn, who was still in her vehicle, claimed that Torti acted negligently when pulling her from the car, resulting in permanent spinal cord damage and rendering her a paraplegic. Van Horn subsequently sued Torti for her injuries.

In 1980 the California Legislature, recognizing the need to encourage Good Samaritan acts without fear of legal liability, codified California’s first Good Samaritan statute at Health & Safety Code § 1799.102. Based on that statute, Torti asked the court to dismiss Van Horn’s lawsuit arguing that she was immune under section 1799.102. The trial court granted Torti’s request and dismissed the lawsuit. At the time in 2004, the Good Samaritan statute immunized Good Samaritans who rendered emergency medical care to another. Van Horn appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her lawsuit first to the Court of Appeal and then to the California Supreme Court. Van Horn argued that the existing statutory immunity provision extended only to a person who renders emergency medical care, not to a person who renders emergency nonmedical care. The Court of Appeal agreed, and its ruling was subsequently affirmed by the Supreme Court, which reinstated Van Horn’s lawsuit, determining that Torti was not rendering medical care when she pulled Van Horn from the vehicle.

In response to the ruling in Van Horn v. Watson, and recognizing that such a narrow scope of the statute could stifle good faith efforts at aiding a person in need of emergency aid, the Legislature in 2008 amended section 1799.102 to state explicitly that “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”

Examples of conduct that is deserving of such legal liability protection include:

  • Rescuing a swimmer who appears to be drowning;
  • Performing the Heimlich maneuver on someone who is choking;
  • Attempting to stabilize someone who is injured in a fall; and
  • In the case of Ms. Torti, helping a car accident victim out of a vehicle at the scene of the accident.

California’s Good Samaritan law provides liability protection for ordinary negligence. Ordinary negligence is defined as the failure to act as a reasonably careful person would under the same or similar situation. On the other hand, the statute provides no protection for actions resulting from gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct. Therefore, some cases involving the Good Samaritan statute are subject to debate over whether a person’s aid-rendering conduct that results in injury to the person being rescued is the result of protected negligence or crosses over the line to unprotected gross negligence. This distinction, of course, is difficult to comprehend in the chaos of most emergency situations where the exigencies of the moment often allow only minutes to act. Without the Good Samaritan law, potential rescuers could be discouraged from helping someone out of fear of being sued for accidentally causing or exacerbating a victim’s injury. Minutes are critical in emergencies, and any delays in providing assistance could result in even greater injury.

As a general rule, however, someone who helps an accident victim at the scene in good faith will usually not be found civilly liable under California’s Good Samaritan law. This is the appropriate result, as public policy should and does support fellow citizens coming to the aid of another who has been put in a perilous emergency situation.

Peter H. Crossin Peter H. Crossin, Esq. is an experienced attorney in good standing with vast experience on both sides of the Plaintiff and Defense bars. He is admitted to all courts of the State of California and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. He has practiced extensively in the Superior Courts of the State and in the California Courts of Appeal. He has authored and argued over 20 appeals and writs and has exceptional writing and team leadership skills.

Mr. Crossin has held lead positions on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committees for the California In Re Intraocular Lens and Latex Glove coordinated litigations and defendants in the In Re Welding Rod coordinated litigation. He has prosecuted and defended a myriad of cases involving toxic tort, catastrophic injury, warranty claims, product and premises liability (with a particular emphasis in premises third-party criminal act litigation), construction defect, and contract disputes.