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United States: California Supreme Court Addresses Immunity of Good Samaritans for Injuries Suffered During Rescues

(Jan. 16, 2009) The California Supreme Court recently addressed when a “good Samaritan” rescuer is liable for injuries occurring during a rescue.

The litigation arose from a car accident that occurred after some Halloween night partying in the early morning of November 1, 2004. The driver of the car in which the plaintiff, Alexandra Van Horn, was traveling lost control and drove into a light pole. Van Horn's friends, including defendant Lisa Torti, who were travelling in another car, stopped to help. Torti testified that she sought to rescue Van Horn because she believed the damaged car was in danger of catching fire and exploding. Van Horn alleged that Torti acted negligently in pulling her from the car rather than waiting for emergency personnel, causing her to suffer permanent spinal cord damage and rendering her a paraplegic.

Torti moved for summary judgment against Van Horn's claim by invoking a California statute that immunizes a person giving emergency care at the scene of an emergency from civil damages. Torti argued this statute protects any rescuer at any emergency scene; Van Horn countered that this applied only to medical assistance at medical emergencies.

The California Supreme Court agreed with Van Horn. Looking to the context and legislative history of the statute, it held that it applies only to medical emergencies. It further stated that the broad construction urged by Torti was contrary to the common law principle that a “good Samaritan” should act with due care once undertaking a rescue attempt. Moreover, it said that Torti's construction would render other “good Samaritan” protections under California law redundant. In dissent, one justice claimed that the majority's opinion would create an unreasonable result by immunizing from liability persons rendering medical assistance but not people rendering other kinds of emergency help. (Van Horn v. Watson, No. S152360, (Cal. Dec. 18, 2008), available at