California Good Samaritan out of luck

Alexandra Van Horn was a passenger in a car that ran into a light pole at 45 mph. Lisa Torti, a passenger in a car following behind, stopped at the crash scene and tried to render assistance by lifting Van Horn out of the car. Van Horn emerged from the accident a paraplegic, although court testimony differed on whether the accident itself or Torti’s attempt to pull her out of the vehicle was responsible for this. Now a California appeals court has ruled that the state’s Good Samaritan liability shield does not protect Ms. Torti from Ms. Van Horn’s negligence suit because it “only protects people from liability if they are administering emergency medical care. The perceived danger of remaining in the wrecked car was not ‘medical,’ the court ruled.” (“Court: Law may not protect Good Samaritan from suit”, AP/CourtTV, Mar. 23).

Update Dec. 19, 2008: Calif. high court rules for plaintiff.


  • Cases like this makes one hope that karma will kick in somewhere down the line.

  • It should be added that Good Samaritan Laws are intended to protect those who provide assistance that is consistent with their level of expertise. For instance, I’m CPR certified so I would be protected for giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to a passerby. I would not be protected if I were to give a tracheotomy. It’s not clear from the CourtTV article why Torti thought she needed to extract Van Horn from the car, but absent a huge peril (say an engine fire) there does not appear to have been any reason for her to have done so. Moving a person with possible spinal damage is not easy and could very well have exceeded Torti’s expertise. All basic first aid and CPR classes will tell you not to move someone with possible spinal damage unless absolutely necessary. There’s not enough in the CourtTV article to really say one way or the other, but I would not take it as given that Torti is covered by the California Good Samaritan Laws.

  • Next time, let them bleed out.

  • The net impact of this case will be less occurances of samaritan behavior. This sends a clear message, be it correct or incorrect, that helping a stranger carries the risk of becoming a victim. Just leave that bleeding man alone…mother nature will take her course.

  • It’s not clear from the CourtTV article why Torti thought she needed to extract Van Horn from the car

    Possibly due to the influence of TV/movies, where cars burst into flames and explode if you so much as look at them funny.

  • I agree, it’s the influence of all those flaming cars in TV/movies. What I’ve heard is that to get that effect, they wrap gasoline cans in “det cord” (plastic explosive strings), put them inside the car, and detonate by radio command. Another example was the TV news show that wanted to make a big deal out of a pickup truck that allegedly tended to catch fire when it was hit in the side-saddle gas tanks. They never got a fire simply by ramming the pickup in the side. Finally, they removed the gas cap and mounted a sparkler where the gasoline would gush out…

    Cars can burn spectacularly without such help, but it’s pretty rare, and I doubt it’s ever happened right after an accident. You get a leak, then maybe a little flame, which might keep on growing if no one does anything about it, and might finally grow into such a fire that you can feel the heat from 50 feet away. But if there’s no fire, don’t worry about a fireball suddenly appearing, and don’t move the victim unless it’s the only way to control severe bleeding or do CPR. If there is a small fire, getting an extinguisher is still probably a better idea than trying to yank a victim out of the vehicle. If there’s fire too big for an extinguisher, unless you’re wearing a fireman’s protective suit, maybe you’d better just get far away *now*.

  • […] “California Supreme Court Ruling May Deter Good Samaritans” [The Recorder; SF Chronicle with copious reader comments, GruntDoc, our coverage last year] […]