California Auto Accident and Personal Injury Liability of Good Samaritans After The Recent California Supreme Court Decision
By The Law Offices of R. Sebastian Gibson, California
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Auto Accident and Personal Injury Good Samaritans in California now face the prospect of being served with lawsuits by San Diego car accident attorneys and Orange County auto accident lawyers for injuries they cause to victims in California auto, truck, motorcycle, pedestrian or bicycle accidents or in any type of personal injury from Newport Beach to Palm Springs and throughout CA as this Palm Desert attorney discusses in this article.
Never before has it been truer in California that no good deed goes unpunished. California Auto Accident Good Samaritans beware - save a life, help a car accident victim or a person in any other type of car or motorcycle or truck accident and if you accidentally cause a personal injury or some additional harm to the person, now you too can be sued by a lawyer on behalf of the victim you tried to help anywhere in California.
The new ruling comes by way of the highest court in California, the California Supreme Court, which means that the only way this interpretation of the law can be changed is by a subsequent ruling by the same court, which is unlikely, or by the State Legislature, which, even though it has its share of lawyers, right now canít even agree on a budget.
The Courtís 4-3 ruling on December 18, 2008 comes as a result of an auto accident that occurred on Halloween night in 2004. A woman was a passenger in a car that ran into a light pole at 45 mph. Her friend, who was in the car behind her, pulled the first woman by her arm from the wreckage in the belief that the car was about to explode and then allegedly dropped her. Unfortunately, the womanís injuries left her a paraplegic and she sued her friend who pulled her out of the non-exploding car in the belief that the Good Samaritanís rescue efforts caused her paralysis.
The Supreme Court was forced to interpret the California Good Samaritan law which is in the section of the state code dealing with emergency medical care and which states, ďNo 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.Ē
Interpreting that law, the California Supreme Court held that the stateís Good Samaritan law only protects you from being sued if you render medical care at the scene of an emergency. If on the other hand you are just rendering aid or help in a non-medical way, such as pulling someone out of a burning car, you can now be sued. That doesnít mean you will be found liable. Thatís for a judge or jury to decide. But the fact that you can be sued, means that without insurance to protect you, you will undoubtedly need an attorney or lawyer to represent you, you will need to pay that lawyer his or her attorneyís fees and costs to defend you, which in a typical personal injury case can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Worse yet, if by chance your actions as a Good Samaritan cause significant injury and a judge or jury of your peers decides that you really botched it when you took the actions that you took, perhaps in a mistaken belief that you were doing a good deed, a court of law could find you responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars if the resulting injuries are severe.
Whether or not any of these situations were covered by the Good Samaritan Law in California to begin with, it is possible that these situations could also now put you into hot water and into court as a possible defendant in a personal injury lawsuit:
1. Donations of bad food - Have you ever given old canned food to a food drive and failed to look at the dates on the cans? What if the food in those cans were beyond the expiration date and causes food poisoning? You might be held responsible in such a case, Good Samaritan Law, notwithstanding. Beer that is past its expiration date probably wonít be a problem for you but if someone serves it to a minor who drinks it and gets into a car accident, the server may face a lawsuit.
2. Donations of organs - Say you are still alive and donate an organ that fails after it is given to a sick patient or you give an organ upon your death that does no more good to the person it is given to than it did for you? Sounds like the deed of a Good Samaritan. And if you drank too much wine while you were alive and your shot liver is given to someone else upon your death, your estate may regret all that wine you drank while you were alive if the liver recipient doesnít do well with your alcohol soaked liver. Still, we hope this is not the case.
3. Jumping into a swimming pool to save a drowning person - If, in pulling that person to the side or lifting them out of the pool you cause them injury, you can clearly be sued under this new ruling. And, if you proceed to give the person artificial respiration, but botch that as well, or if you botch it so badly, a jury or judge decides that you werenít even rendering medical emergency treatment, a vindictive jury may hold you responsible for causing the swimmerís death or additional injuries, such as brain damage.
4. What if youíve been watching too many movies and you knock a person down or jump onto them to protect them from being shot by a bank robber running away and in so doing break their neck? Guess what? You may have just won yourself another lawsuit.
5. And if you swerve to avoid hitting a dog and hit another car instead? I hate to tell you, but in this situation, courts and insurance companies will almost always find you to be at fault, in the belief that a dogís life has little value (this is not my opinion) and if you cause injury to another human just to save the life of an animal, you take the fall.
6. If you help someone out of a burning airplane, push them out the door into the chute and they take a header onto the tarmac, guess what? Some lawyer may slap you with a lawsuit.
7. If you see someone choking on a piece of meat in a restaurant and rush to perform the Heimlich maneuver, donít bruise their ribs getting the person to cough up that piece of food. Otherwise, you guessed it. An attorneyís lawsuit may be served on you with your next meal.
8. Finally, what about EMS helicopter pilots? There has been a rash nationwide of EMS helicopters crashing as they transport accident victims from the scenes of their auto accidents to nearby hospitals. Since the pilot is not rendering medical treatment, itís likely that they can be sued and can be found at fault if a judge or jury finds them responsible for some negligence in their piloting of their helicopter.
Can a person be sued for not coming to anotherís aid? Apparently not, according to the California Supreme Court decision. But a person who does come to the aid of another has a ďduty to exercise due care.Ē
If you do pull someone from a burning car, here are some facetious doís and doníts:
1) First, do not yank the car accident victimís arm out of their socket when pulling someone from a burning car. Instead, first put on gloves, put on a fire retardant suit, and then with the flames licking at your suit, gently apply a neck brace, back brace, full body brace and with full medical precautions, gently lift the person from the burning wreckage. In the event, you see gas seeping from the gas tank and flames getting closer to the gas, move faster.
2) Once you remove the auto accident victim from the burning car, do not drop them on the sidewalk. Instead, gently place them on a warm blanket (not the wet grass where they might catch a cold).
3) Immediately, if not sooner, start applying bandages to every part of their body, thus qualifying your actions as emergency medical care. If you can do this while gently lifting them from the burning car, even better.
4) Request bystanders to take pictures with their cell phones of you applying bandages to the personal injury victim and acting like a doctor, even if you donít have a medical license. If by chance you are not a doctor or paramedic, quickly go online, take a crash medical course to become a paramedic, and be sure you pass the test. Then print out your license for all to see.
5) Call only the finest medical personnel in the state to the scene of the accident in case your 911 call results in medical malpractice being performed by a newly licensed paramedic and your call is determined not to be an act of administering medical care in an emergency. Obviously, you will want to get onto the internet with your phone or computer and research the local medical professionals. If you canít get onto the internet to research who would be the best emergency personnel to call to the scene, make the 911 call anonymously.
6) If the car that you thought was going to explode just doesnít seem to want to explode, and you were a little rough in pulling the auto accident victim from their car, you may want to call a tow truck driver to push the car further away as this may prevent other injuries and help your situation. Just be sure to first ensure that any resulting explosion doesnít hurt any bystanders or the victim you yanked from the car.
7) Keep administering medical care to the vehicle accident victim until medical personnel arrive. Since youíve administered medical care, even if you are not a doctor, the car or truck or motorcycle accident victim is potentially now your patient, and there are rules about abandoning patients.
8) In the event the auto or motorcycle accident victim youíve saved is delirious, you may also want to provide psychiatric counseling to them, which could conceivably also be considered medical treatment.
9) If weather conditions are bad or it is nighttime, and an EMS helicopter arrives at the scene instead of an ambulance, in view of the rash of EMS helicopter accidents in the U.S. you may want to suggest to the accident victim that he or she walks to the hospital as it may be safer. However, keep applying bandages throughout the walk and again, do not abandon your patient.
10) Proceed only to the hospital in your area with the best mortality rate. After walking ten or fifteen miles after a horrific car accident, because you stupidly declined medical treatment at the scene, you do not want to walk your patient into a hospital with a high medical malpractice rate or one with a higher fatality rate for car accident victims than ninety percent of the other hospitals in the state.
The California Supreme Court decision is rewriting the rules of liability in auto and car accidents, in motorcycle and truck crashes and in personal injury situations in general in the golden state and may make people think twice before acting as a Good Samaritan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: R. Sebastian Gibson
Sebastian Gibson graduated cum laude at UCLA in 1972 and received law degrees in the U.S. and the U.K., graduating with an LL.B. magna cum laude from University College, Cardiff in Wales and a J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law.
Mr. Gibson began his legal career in San Diego before practicing for years in London, England. Today, he has offices in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert in the Palm Springs area, Corona del Mar and Newport Beach, and the firmís Of Counsel office is in Carlsbad, San Diego.
Mr. Gibsonís firm handles a wide variety of areas of law including auto, motorcycle, truck, car, pedestrian and bicycle accident personal injury cases throughout Southern California from San Diego, Orange County, Irvine, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Santa Ana, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, La Jolla, Riverside, San Bernardino, Indio, Laguna Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard, Indian Wells, Orange, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Newport Beach to Carlsbad.
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.