Does California’s Good Samaritan Law Really Protect You?

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California’s Good Samaritan Law gives quite a bit of protection to people who help crash victims, but not as much as it used to. (Flickr.com photo by m. anima)

The first impulse of many people when they see an accident is to help people injured in the crash. But can you be sued for helping someone if they turn around later and say you injured them worse? The answer is maybe.

In 2004 a lay woman (not a professional rescue worker) pulled another woman from a wrecked car, fearing the car was going to catch fire. The woman in the wrecked car became paralyzed, and she sued, saying her rescuer’s actions, not the crash, paralyzed her legs.

Under California’s Good Samaritan Law at the time, the rescuer was not supposed to have been sued. The California Health and Safety Code law then stated:

1799.102. 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. The scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered.

She was Sued Anyway

The rescuer got sued anyway, and she got a summary judgment from Superior Court judge saying she was not liable for the woman’s paralysis.

A California appellate court overturned the judge’s decision and allowed a lawsuit against the rescuer to proceed. The ruling stated that the word medical in the final sentence of the law conveyed that the law covers medical care only. The court decided moving a crash victim to safety is not medical care.

The California Supreme Court upheld the ruling on appeal in 2008, and this left good Samaritans in California without the very strong protection that the law had once afforded them.

Moving a Person isn’t Medical Care

Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote in the majority’s decision:

There may be circumstances in which moving someone from their current location is a matter of medical exigency, such as where a carbon monoxide poisoning victim needs to be moved to a source of fresh air. We do not hold that the act of moving a person is never the rendition of emergency medical care, only that it was not in this case.”

This meant that any good Samaritans, if they were even aware of the change in California law, would have to decide if the aid they were about to render was medical or non-medical. This law applied to and was meant to protect non-emergency workers, lay people who come on the accident scene first.

Legislature Renews Protections

The California Legislature decided to revisit the law and renew protections for good Samaritans by adding in protections for rendering medical and non-medical care to the law.

Now it reads:

1799.102.(a) No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or non-medical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission. The scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered. This subdivision applies only to the medical, law enforcement, and emergency personnel specified in this chapter.

 (b) (1) It is the intent of the Legislature to encourage other individuals to volunteer, without compensation, to assist others in need during an emergency, while ensuring that those volunteers who provide care or assistance act responsibly.

But the law now includes the caveat that the rescuer is protected unless he commits “an act or omission constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.”

And that leaves a lot of leeway for crash victims to sue people who are good enough to render them aid.

Emergency Workers Still Protected

An article on VeryWell.com states: “It is important to point out that the exclusion of protection for acts or omissions constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct only exists in the subsection dedicated to laypersons, which means a lay rescuer can still be sued for really screwing up. Off-duty folks with medical training, or cops or firefighters, are fully protected under this new version of the statute. So, in effect, you are less protected in California if you’re not trained than you are if you’re a doctor or a paramedic.”

If you are ever among the first to come upon an accident on California roads (and all states have some form of a good Samartian law), examine your conscience as to whether you want to render aid to a victim. The law does afford good Samaritans protections as long as they don’t act with gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

One good way to help a wrecked motorist is to immediately call 911 with the location of the crash. You can’t get in any trouble for reporting an accident to the police.

If you Get in an Accident

Krasney Law posted a blog a while back about what you should do if you get involved in an accident yourself. Check on drivers, passengers and pedestrians involved. Summon an ambulance if needed. Don’t move anyone who is unconscious or reports neck or back pain. Leave that to the professionals.

Call the police to report any deaths, injuries or significant property damage and request a police report on the accident. Get the names and badge numbers of officers who come to the scene.

When you approach the other drivers, be cooperative and courteous, but do not apologize or admit to, for example, violating right of way or running a red light.

Ask all the drivers for their names, drivers’ license numbers, telephone and address. Take down license plates and insurance information from every driver involved.

Also get passengers’ names, addresses and phone numbers. If there are witnesses, write down their version of what happened and their information too.

When you go home or soon after, contact your insurance company, and don’t lie or they may deny coverage if you’re caught. Obtain a copy of the police report.

Photograph your car. And keep records of doctors’ visits, treatments and medications, and note down any time you lost at work.

Krasney Law Helps Accident Victims

If you or anyone else is injured in a wreck, the best course is to contact your Inland Empire auto-accident attorneys at Krasney Law, (909) 380-7200. We will charge you nothing for an initial consultation, and we may arrange payment on a contingency basis. That is, we don’t get paid unless you accept a settlement or we go to trial.

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