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

Discussion in 'Topics in Healthcare' started by Taurus, Dec 20, 2008.

  1. Taurus

    Taurus Paul Revere of Medicine
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    California Supreme Court allows good Samaritans to be sued for nonmedical care

    The ruling stems from a case in which a woman pulled a crash victim from a car 'like a rag doll,' allegedly aggravating a vertebrae injury.

    By Carol J. Williams
    December 19, 2008

    Being a good Samaritan in California just got a little riskier.

    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.

    Lisa Torti of Northridge allegedly worsened the injuries suffered by Alexandra Van Horn by yanking her "like a rag doll" from the wrecked car on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

    Torti now faces possible liability for injuries suffered by Van Horn, a fellow department store cosmetician who was rendered a paraplegic in the accident that ended a night of Halloween revelry in 2004.

    But in a sharp dissent, three of the seven justices said that by making a distinction between medical care and emergency response, the court was placing "an arbitrary and unreasonable limitation" on protections for those trying to help.

    In 1980, the Legislature enacted the Health and Safety Code, 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."

    Although that passage does not use the word "medical" in describing the protected emergency care, it was included in the section of the code that deals with emergency medical services. By placing it there, lawmakers intended to shield "only those persons who in good faith render emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency," Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the majority.

    The high court cited no previous cases involving good Samaritan actions deemed unprotected by the state code, suggesting the challenge of Torti's rescue effort was the first to narrow the scope of the law.

    The three dissenting justices argued, however, that the aim of the legislation was clearly "to encourage persons not to pass by those in need of emergency help, but to show compassion and render the necessary aid."

    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."

    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 healthcare 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."

    Torti's liability has yet to be determined in court, and if the Legislature is unhappy with any judgment arising from the immunity denial, it can revise the code, he concluded.

    Torti, Van Horn and three other co-workers from a San Fernando Valley department store had gone out to a bar on Halloween for a night of drinking and dancing, departing in two cars at 1:30 a.m., the justices noted as background.

    Van Horn was a front-seat passenger in a vehicle driven by Anthony Glen Watson, whom she also sued, and Torti rode in the second car. After Watson's car crashed into a light pole at about 45 mph, the rear car pulled off the road and driver Dion Ofoegbu and Torti rushed to help Watson's two passengers escape the wreckage.

    Torti testified in a deposition that she saw smoke and liquid coming from Watson's vehicle and feared the car was about to catch fire. None of the others reported seeing signs of an imminent explosion, and Van Horn said in her deposition that Torti grabbed her arm and yanked her out "like a rag doll."

    Van Horn's suit alleges negligence by Torti in aggravating a vertebrae injury suffered in the crash, causing permanent damage to the spinal cord.

    Neither Torti nor her attorney, Ronald D. Kent, could be reached immediately. Kent's Los Angeles law office said he was in meetings on the East Coast and may not have seen the decision.

    Van Horn's attorney, Robert B. Hutchinson, disputed the notion that the ruling could have a chilling effect on laymen coming to the rescue of the injured. Good Samaritan laws have been on the books for centuries and state that "if a person volunteers to act, he or she must act with reasonable care," Hutchinson said.

    "Ms. Torti ran up in a state of panic, literally grabbed Ms. Van Horn by the shoulder and yanked her out, then dropped her next to the car," he said, deeming Torti's assessment of an imminent explosion "irrational" and her action in leaving Van Horn close to the car inconsistent with that judgment.

    Hutchinson said it was too early to say what sum Van Horn might seek in damages; her original suit was summarily dismissed in Los Angeles County Superior Court before he could arrange expert assessments of the costs of her life care and loss of potential income. It was her ambition to become a Hollywood makeup artist -- a dream no longer achievable, the lawyer said.

    Torti's trial at the Chatsworth courthouse is expected next year.
     
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  3. Miami_med

    Miami_med Moving Far Away
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    It seems that there is a very public backlash against this ruling in CA. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
     
  4. docB

    docB Chronically painful
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    That's just extraordinarily bad. Chalk it up to another victory by lawyers over common sense. I suggest never, ever trying to help another person under any circumstances lest you lose your house.
     
  5. psy

    psy Lazy Bum Extraordinaire
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    This addition of "medical" to the law would basically invalidate the Good Samaritan law. How would the samaritan have previous training in providing rescue? They would no longer be a samaritan but a trained professional. I'm in Washington State and there are similar situations to this judgment. One guy lost his job for providing life saving CPR to his boss who passed out and stopped breathing due to a stroke. The reason? He didn't have cpr certification. The boss had neck injury, however they didn't know if it was from cpr or falling down. It took emergency response 8-10 minutes to arrive.
     
  6. Miami_med

    Miami_med Moving Far Away
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    I'm not sure if I know of a case in which someone actually lost a lawsuit of this nature, though I could very well be wrong. I'd love it if someone had any examples. Losing a job isn't a legal problem per se, while losing a lawsuit clearly is.
     
  7. yaah

    yaah Boring
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    Maybe the woman getting sued should sue Hollywood producers for teaching us that cars always blow up after accidents. :rolleyes:
     
  8. LeemerDO

    LeemerDO POWER PLAY!!!!
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    All I can say is karma is a B!TCH. I honestly and sincerelly do hope that the judges who ruled in favor of making Good Samaritans liable be put in a situation where their life depends on the acts of a Good Samaritan, and then no one will step forward to help them, rather let them suffer and die...slowly.
    Poetic justice for those who would deprive others from helping their fellow man.
     
  9. psy

    psy Lazy Bum Extraordinaire
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    I would not wish for such unfortunate events on anyone, even for those we think are horrible.
     
  10. cpants

    cpants Member
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    To play devil's advocate, you can still cause some pretty extreme damage to someone by doing something stupid in good faith. Let's say you see a kid get hit by a car, and you, not knowing any better, run up and shake his unconscious body to try to wake him up. In doing so you damage his spinal cord and put him in a wheelchair. Now what should be done here? It's a tough question, but maybe we don't necessarily want untrained people running up and doing whatever they saw on TV in an emergency situation.
     
  11. Faebinder

    Faebinder Slow Wave Smurf
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    With this rule... i have officially decided that the world does not require me saving them. The decision i have made has been rearfirmed once again.... i will not stop to save anyone unless i know them personally AND I know they deserve saving.
     
  12. dilated

    dilated Fought Law; Law Won
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    ...they should be sued for a huge amount of money? THAT'S what you think is appropriate?

    FAIL. The legal system in this country is pathetic and would only be improved if people started leaving lawyers in burning cars because they feared being sued for moving them.

    We can't be sued for breaking someone's ribs into splinters with CPR when they don't need it, but if you move somebody with a 1/1000 chance of a c-spine injury (even if it's 1000000 times likelier to have already occurred than suddenly happening when you move them) you're on the hook for everything you own. Only in America.
     
  13. cpants

    cpants Member
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    I didn't say they should be sued for a huge amount of money, but it can be problematic when people who have no idea what they are doing make things worse in an emergency. I'm not sure what the solution is, and I admit that it could be worth the risk of unintended injury to give samaritans immunity, since they probably do help in the majority of cases. What should accompany this immunity is an education campaign to ensure that people have a basic knowledge of what to do in emergency situations. We could start an ad campaign and start teaching this stuff in health class.

    As far as your final paragraph goes, you actually can and will be sued if you break someone's ribs by performing CPR when they don't need it (ie. they have a pulse). Someone in a serious accident has a high risk of spinal injury. We know the spinal injury happens prior to extraction, but when the vertebrae are already broken, you can easily damage the cord by moving the patient improperly. This is basic stuff. There could also be other internal and musculoskeletal injury which could be worsened by movement. Extraction should be performed by trained rescue professionals, unless there is eminent risk of death (the car is on fire or the patient isn't breathing).
     
  14. Miami_med

    Miami_med Moving Far Away
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    I figure that in this case, there are some things that we don't know. We don't know what condition the car was in. Perhaps it was smoking or giving some other indication that it would catch fire. She was clearly not in good enough condition to object to being moved. Either that, or she was conscious and didn't object. It is also VERY likely that her paralysis resulted from the crash and not being moved, though we can't say 100%.

    All of that said, I sincerely doubt that the guy said, "Mwahahaha, now I can paralyze my co-worker by pulling her from the wreckage of a major car accident." Appropriate training or not, you probably should try to move someone away from something you think is going to explode. Most importantly, he was clearly trying to help, and that is a good thing.
     
  15. Pharmavixen

    Pharmavixen foxy pharmacist
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    But if you can be sued for doing something, does this then imply you can be sued for not doing something? If you're standing on the sidelines, not moving somebody because you're not qualified, and the car then burst into flames, could the next of kin hold you liable?
     
  16. docB

    docB Chronically painful
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    That's a good question. I would say no as a knee jerk response because you had no duty to act but I also would have said that the person pulling the victim away from the car would have been covered under the good sam law. We're a ways down the rabbit hole here so who knows.
     
  17. Tired

    Tired Fading away
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    That's why you don't just stand there and watch.

    You walk away, so no one can take your name and include it in a future court filing.
     
  18. docB

    docB Chronically painful
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    While I tacitly agree with Tired I note with bemused sadness that our legal system has now made it so that it's not enough for would be good samaritans to stand idly by without giving aid. It's now imperative that they flee the scene entirely. I suppose we should avoid calling 911 too since that call could be used to prove we were there.
     
  19. Tired

    Tired Fading away
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    It worked well when my first wife "mysteriously" died.
     
  20. masterofmonkeys

    masterofmonkeys Angy Old Man
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    Many states catch you coming and going if you have any kind of certification.

    In NY state, being certified in CPR or first response or whatever means you DO have a duty to act. And even though they actually do have a good samaritan law, it doesn't apply to people who've been certified. And of course, certification doesn't actually include any kind of malpractice insurance in and of itself.
     
  21. cpants

    cpants Member
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    Why shouldn't you have a duty to act if you are CPR/EMT/first responder/MD/RN/etc trained? If you stand there and do nothing while you have the training to help, you are neglecting your duty as a professional and as a human being. If you do something that goes against or is outside the scope of your training, you should not be protected. If you follow your training, you may be sued (as anyone can be), but you will win. This makes sense to me.
     
  22. Miami_med

    Miami_med Moving Far Away
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    Learning how to help someone doesn't make you a slave to having to help everyone.
     
  23. docB

    docB Chronically painful
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    I disagree. There has to be a difference between being trained and having a duty to act.

    Your assertion would also create some odd situations. For example, a person certified in CPR would be obligated to approach and take a pulse on an unconscious person. If the person had a pulse anything else would be outside their scope (a CPR cert doesn't give you a lot to work with) so then anything they did would be suspect.

    I also disagree with your assertion that if you get sued you would win. That's just not so. Even if you win you would have had to pay all your own costs (lawyer fees, etc.) which would financially ruin most people.
     
  24. cpants

    cpants Member
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    So when is it ok for a trained medical professional to ignore a life threatening situation? Legally, a person is probably not required to act if not in uniform, but I don't think that's right. With training and certification comes responsibility to use that training in appropriate situations. A physician ignoring a person who collapses next to him on a public street, for example, is negligent, and he should be liable for damages due to his inaction.

    With an unconscious person, a CPR certified person would check ABC's and initiate appropriate therapy if the patient is lacking one of these things. If a patient has a pulse and is breathing, then the CPR-certed responder should just sit there and wait for the ambulance. Regardless, when I said outside the scope of training, I didn't mean a person with CPR-certification putting a cool towel on a patient's head. I meant more like a person with a CPR cert trying to pull traction on a broken femur. For reasonable actions in which responders were not formally trained, they could be protected under the existing Samaritan principle.

    You would win if you took reasonable actions. You are right that it wouldn't be cheap, though. And this is the problem with the tort system in our whole country, and the reason that malpractice insurance is so high. There is something terribly wrong when it is cheaper to pay a frivolous patient tens of thousands of dollars than to pay for your own defense. I don't think the solution to this is to give blanket immunity to people with medical training. Once you are trained you do have a duty to act and a responsibility to act appropriately (to the extent which you have been trained). If you neglect the situation or your training, and the patient is injured as a result, then you share part of the responsibility.
     
  25. PeepshowJohnny

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    The Good Samaritan stuff always reminds me of a story my dad told me when I was a kid.

    There's a scorpion by the bank of a river that he wants to cross. He notices a frog swimming by.

    "Hey frog, if you give me a ride across the river on your back, I will be eternally grateful"

    The frog looks back and says "No way, you're a scorpion. Your sting will kill me, why would I allow you on my back?"

    The scorpion says "But if I sting you, I'd die as well because I'd drown"

    The frog considers this and agrees to help the scorpion. The scorpion climbs on the frog's back and he starts gliding across the river. About halfway there however, without warning, the scorpion suddenly lashes out with his stinger and buries it deep in the frog's back.

    The frog, shocked and dying gasps "Why? Why did you do that? Now we are both dead"

    The scorpion sadly sighs "Sorry, it is just my nature".
     
  26. Miami_med

    Miami_med Moving Far Away
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    No NO No NO There is a difference between feeling morally compelled and legally obligated. Please do not start asserting that everyone with some medical training should be legally obligated to help everyone who looks like they need medical attention. Taking that concept just to the ER under EMTALA, where people are supposed to go who need help has brought the country's medical system to its knees under the judicial hammer. Do not create duties to act. Training does not equal slavery. Being forced by law to engage in an activity against your will for the benefit of someone else is in fact the definition of slavery. Most of us entered medicine because we like helping people who need medical attention (or atleast tolerate it), but don't make it the law.
     
  27. Tired

    Tired Fading away
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    Replace "frog" with "man", "scorpion" with "chick", and "river" with "vagina" and my dad told me exactly the same story.
     
  28. docB

    docB Chronically painful
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    That's like some really inappropriate Mad Libs story.
     
  29. masterofmonkeys

    masterofmonkeys Angy Old Man
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    You're right, if you follow your training you will win. It'll only cost you tens of thousands of dollars to defend yourself, which is easy enough to do when you're a broke college student (as I was when I was a certified first responder).

    In the case of CPR, you're trying to bring something back that wasn't there. In the case of other emergency interventions, you do have the possibility of creating harm. As a CFR (less than EMT training), I was trained and certified to do emergency deliveries (by a freaking videotape!), traction for broken femurs (that at least was hand's on), and 1 and 2 person evacuation techniques, among other things. The baby might have a low apgar, the mother might have PPH and me without my handy dandy methergine or an OR on standby for emergency hysterectomy. Traction might cause a fat embolus. Moving the patient from a harmful situation might contribute to spinal cord damage.

    People love to blame someone. Bad luck doesn't exist. And they've proven that unlike dogs, they will bite the hands that feeds them.

    And of course, after bankrupting yourself trying to defend yourself, juries always choose right. Which is how the cerebral palsy lawyers made their fortunes.
     
    #28 masterofmonkeys, Jan 1, 2009
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2009

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