Good Samaritan Immunity: Medical Emergencies

By on April 17, 2009 - Comments off

Van Horn v. Watson, (Supreme Court of California, December 18, 2008) 197 P.3d 164, 45 Cal.4th 322, 197 P.3d 164, 86 Cal.Rptr. 3d 350, 08 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 15,199, 2008 Daily Journal D.A.R. 18,512

A woman who was injured in a motor vehicle collision filed suit against an acquaintance who had pulled her from the vehicle following the collision. The plaintiff alleged that she had only suffered an injury to her vertebrae, but that by dragging her out of the vehicle the defendant had caused permanent damage to her spinal cord, rendering her a paraplegic.

The defendant moved for summary judgment based upon Health & Safety Code section 1799.102, which provides that 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. The trial court granted summary judgment but the Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the defendant’s actions at the scene did not amount to the rendering of emergency care within the meaning of the statute.

The California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal, holding that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to immunize only those persons who in good faith render emergency medical care:

“[T]he Legislature made clear in numerous other statutes that it intended for the statutory scheme to address the provision of emergency medical care. For example, in section 1797.1, the Legislature declared that it is the intent of the Act “to provide the state with a statewide system for emergency medical services….” (Italics added.) In section 1797.6, subdivision (a), the Legislature declared that it is “the policy of the State of California to ensure the provision of effective and efficient emergency medical care.” (Italics added.) Indeed, nowhere in the Act’s general provisions (Health & Saf.Code, div. 2.5, ch. 1, §§ 1797- 1797.8) is there any indication that the Legislature intended to address or affect the provision of nonmedical care.
. . .
Section 1797.5 thus establishes that the Legislature intended to encourage people to learn and provide emergency medical care (such as the cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid specifically identified in section 1797.5) to those in need. The Act’s stated purpose supports construing section 1799.102 to immunize only those who render such emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency.
. . .
Torti’s expansive interpretation of section 1799.102 would undermine long-standing common law principles. As we previously noted, the general rule is that “one has no duty to come to the aid of another.” (Williams v. State of California, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 23, 192 Cal.Rptr. 233, 664 P.2d 137.) 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 they were with an individual “who merely did nothing, even though another might suffer serious harm because of his omission to act.” (Ibid.)

While there is no general duty to help, a good Samaritan who nonetheless “undertakes to come to the aid of another … is under a duty to exercise due care in performance….” (Williams v. State of California, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 23, 192 Cal.Rptr. 233, 664 P.2d 137, citing Rest.2d Torts, § 323.) As we explained in Artiglio v. Corning,“ ‘[i]t is ancient learning that one who assumes to act, even though gratuitously, may thereby become subject to a duty of acting carefully, if he acts at all.’ (Glanzer v. Shepard (1922) 233 N.Y. 236, 135 N.E. 275.)” (Artiglio v. Corning, supra, 18 Cal.4th at p. 613, 76 Cal.Rptr.2d 479, 957 P.2d 1313.)

The broad construction urged by Torti-that section 1799.102 immunizes any person who provides any emergency care at the scene of any emergency-would largely gut this well-established common law rule. As we recently noted, “ ‘[w]e do not presume that the Legislature intends, when it enacts a statute, to overthrow long-established principles of law unless such intention is clearly expressed or necessarily implied.’ ”

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