Friday, December 19, 2008

So much for the Good Samaritan Law

California's Supreme Court just gave the concept of helping one another a slap in the face with their recent ruling (link from the LA Times):

California Supreme Court allows good Samaritans to be sued for nonmedical care

The article summarizes:

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a young woman who pulled a co-worker from a crashed vehicle isn't immune from civil liability because the care she rendered wasn't medical.

The divided high court appeared to signal that rescue efforts are the responsibility of trained professionals. It was also thought to be the first ruling by the court that someone who intervened in an accident in good faith could be sued.

Of course the ruling has some significant legal and factual issues, mostly whether the action (allegedly pulling the woman from the wreck "like a rag doll") was negligent and the cause of the injuries. The fact that alcohol was involved certainly muddies the waters.

The dissenting opinion from the court seems reasonable to me:

Justice Marvin R. Baxter said the ruling was "illogical" because it recognizes legal immunity for nonprofessionals administering medical care while denying it for potentially life-saving actions like saving a person from drowning or carrying an injured hiker to safety.

"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," Baxter wrote for the dissenters. "Here, the result is that defendant Torti has no immunity for her bravery in pulling her injured friend from a crashed vehicle, even if she reasonably believed it might be about to explode."

Yet the constitutional scholars believe the court ruling has merit:

Both opinions have merit, "but I think the majority has better arguments," said Michael Shapiro, professor of constitutional and bioethics law at USC.

Shapiro said the majority was correct in interpreting that the Legislature meant to shield doctors and other health care professionals from being sued for injuries they cause despite acting with "reasonable care," as the law requires.

Noting that he would be reluctant himself to step in to aid a crash victim with potential spinal injuries, Shapiro said the court's message was that emergency care "should be left to medical professionals."

While I agree that yanking someone from a car when there is no real hazard may cause injury, does this ruling keep people from stopping and helping those who really need it? In the bigger picture, does this ruling take us back a step in civilization by making well-meaning citizens reluctant to help another human being in a time of need and ignore the greater good? I think so on both counts.

I also think that the next time I need help on the side of the road I hope a constitutional scholar isn't the one driving by. I could be there for a while.

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