Van Horn testified in her pre-trial deposition that "Torti pulled her out of the vehicle by grabbing her by the arms and yanking her out, "like a rag doll."
EMS crews arrived moments later and transported Van Horn and Freed to the hospital. Van Horn was seriously injured, with a lacerated liver requiring surgery, and was permanently paralyzed from injury to her vertebrae.
The majority opinion relied on the fact that the Good Samaritan statute is part of the "Emergency Medical Services" section of the Health and Safety Code. The court cited from the 1978 legislative history: "It is the intent of the Legislature to promote the development, accessibility, and the provision of emergency medical services to the people of the State of California."
The Court also referenced another statute, 1799.107, where the Legislature granted "qualified immunity" to emergency rescue personnel performing any type of "emergency services," including medical care and non-medical care. The court concluded that the Legislature could have likewise provided Good Samaritans immunity for a broad range of emergency services, but did not do so.
In addition, when the Legislature was considering the Good Samaritan statute, they also deleted a provision granting immunity for a bystander who "transports an injured person for emergency medical treatment."
Dissent From The Justice
Justice Baxter wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by two other Justices. He noted: "The statute protects from the threat of civil litigation a layperson who, acting as a Good Samaritan, reasonably believes that another human being needed immediate emergency assistance and intervened, despite possible personal risk and danger, to provide it. The purpose, of course, is to encourage persons not to pass by those in need of emergency help, but to shoe compassion and render the necessary aid."
Justice Baxter provided some interesting examples of the practical effect of the majority's decision.
First Example: "a passerby who, at risk of his or her own life, saves someone about to perish in a burning building can be sued for incidental injury caused in the rescue, but would be immune from harming the victim during the administration of cardiopulmonary resuscitation out on the sidewalk."
Second Example: "A hiker can be sued if, far from help, he or she causes a broken bone while lifting a fallen comrade up the face of a cliff to safety, but would be immune if, after waiting for another member of the party to effect the rescue, he or she set the bone incorrectly."
Third Example: "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 if, after waiting for someone else to undertake the physical and legal risk of rescue, she then caused harm by attempting to administer to the victim's injuries at roadside.
Justice Baxter further notes that under California statutes, fire and EMS personnel enjoy "qualified immunity" and are only liable when their actions were performed with gross negligence. Therefore paid fire and EMS personnel are "held to minimal standards of care in keeping with their training and their compensated professional status."
Comparing this to Good Samaritans who respond without pay and without training, Justice Baxter writes:
"I therefore conclude that this [Good Samaritan] statute protects from civil liability any person who, without compensation, renders emergency assistance of any kind during a situation he or she reasonably perceives to be an emergency."
Author's comment: The minority dissenting opinion is "right on" the mark. The California legislature needs to "fix" this decision by quickly amending the statute so all Good Samaritans are covered, whether rending medical care, or lifting a victim from a car crash, or otherwise helping at an emergency.
Additional Good Samaritan Cases
Many states have Good Samaritan statutes that have been broadly interpreted by the courts, thereby providing immunity protection for those trying to help others without compensation. EMS personnel, serving for compensation, in many states enjoy "qualified immunity" where they are not liable unless there is proof of willful or wanton, or gross misconduct.