The Plight of the Good Samaritan

January 27th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

Can people be sued for misguided attempts at saving a life? A CA court says yes.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

On Halloween night four years ago in Los Angeles, a car slammed into a light pole at 45 mph, critically injuring a young woman named Alexandra Van Horn, who is now a paraplegic.

Also shattered in the accident was the very definition of what it means to be a Good Samaritan, undermined by a troubling new legal question: Can you be sued for trying to save someone’s life?

Van Horn and several friends had just left a bar at 1:30AM when the driver of the car she was in lost control and crashed. Following behind in a second car was Van Horn’s friend Lisa Torti, who stopped and rushed to help. Torti said she saw smoke and feared that the wrecked car would catch fire or explode, so she pulled the incapacitated Van Horn from the passenger’s seat.

Van Horn later sued Torti, saying that her spinal injuries from the accident were made worse by Torti dragging her from the car “like a rag doll.” Torti argued that she was covered by California’s Good Samaritan law, which provides legal protection to people helping in an emergency. The case was dismissed.

But in a controversial new ruling, the California Supreme Court said the state’s Good Samaritan law applies only to emergency medical care. Rescuing someone from a car crash doesn’t qualify. Hence, the court said, Van Horn has the right to sue her Good Samaritan. And so she did.

“Careless rescuers are not good Samaritans, really,” said a law professor after the court’s ruling. “We don’t want people interfering with other people and hurting them a lot worse, right?”

California legislators immediately proposed three separate bills to amend the law, but many future Samaritans had already downgraded themselves from Good to Hesitant to Never. “The next time I see someone in need of help I will look the other way and mind my own business” was typical of the many postings on internet message boards.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” wrote another. “I’m sure that if she hadn’t pulled the woman from the wreckage and the car had exploded, she’d be charged with letting the woman die.”

From parable to terrible, the Good Samaritan’s drop in stock may have been summed up best by a newspaper columnist who wrote, “As for that New Testament passage, in which the Samaritan comes across a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead, ‘and bound up his wounds…and took care of him’—it’d be a shame to have to put an asterisk there, with the notation, ‘Not applicable in California.’”

Tell us what you think: Would you still help someone in an emergency, knowing you could be sued? Where would you draw the line between helping and turning away?