Friday, December 19, 2008

They May Have Come To The Wrong Conclusion

I do not always agree with the California Supreme Court. They have extended privilege protection in ways that seem to penalize tenants, and embolden landlord's to abuse the civil litigation process. In what looks like their latest mistake, they have allowed a lawsuit to go forward against a rescuer.

Under California law, specifically Health and Safety Code §1799.102, people who are performing emergency care at the scene of accident are immune from civil suits as long as the emergency care was rendered in good faith and not for compensation. Essentially, if a person collapses, and you give them CPR, and something bad happens as a result, then the person giving the CPR is not liable for damages.

Now, in the case of Van Horn v. Watson, the California Supreme Court ruled that this immunity does not extend to people who perform the rescue of the person in need. In Van Horn, two women (Van Horn and Torti) were riding in a car when they ended up in a accident. Torti, being less injured, thought she saw smoke coming from the car. So she pulled her friend, Van Horn form the car. However, because of her condition, and the movements in pulling her out of the car, Van Horn was left a parapalegic.

The Van Horn decision, written by Justice Ching, held that the statute was meant to be construed in a particular fashion. Specifically, Ching wrote, "the 'scene of an emergency' ... means a scene where 'an individual has a need for immediate medical attention' ... it logically follows that the Legislature intended for the phrase 'emergency care' ... to refer to the medical attention given to the individual who needs it."

Seems to me that the statue reads "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." Yes, it is contained in a section of the code which deals with doctors and nurses, however, the law states that it is dealing with "emergency care at the scene of an emergency". A plain reading would indicate that this means all emergency care at the scene of the emergency, and not simply the emergency medical treatment.

Given the reading that the majority (the decision was a 4-3 split) gives this code section, it could have the effect of making people even more likely not to help people in an emergency situation. It appears that the majority's reasoning for its decision, that the legislative history and placement of the statute, conflicts with the facts. The statute, as the majority acknoweldges, was meant to encourage people to be good samaritans and render assistance. However, they chose to read it narrowly on the grounds that it was in a section of the Code dealing specifically with medical care.

Part of me thinks that the Justices were uncomfortable giving immunity to someon who was probably drunk and/or high at the time that the accident occurred. (See the facts fo the case to see how the participants of the suit had spent their night.)

Basically, I think that the court missed a chance to shield bona fide good samaritans from lawsuits. Unfortunately, I think its going to end up hurting more people in the long run. (Shocker, I am taking the defense side on this one.)

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