Imagine you come upon a car accident. One of the cars is burning, and the driver is sitting unconscious in his seat. Fearing for his life, you rush over to the vehicle, open the door, undo the seatbelt, and drag him a safe distance away. Although you do your best to be careful, during the rescue you accidentally exacerbate a neck injury that the victim sustained in the crash. The man survives, but is paralyzed from the waist down. Though you essentially saved the victim’s life, you also technically caused the tragedy of paralysis. Could the victim later successfully sue you for civil damages? Thanks to Good Samaritan laws that have been passed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, he could not.
What are Good Samaritan Laws?
Good Samaritan laws are established to protect people who try to help victims at the scene of an accident or other emergency, even if they lack proper training. The laws are in place to encourage responsible action in emergency situations. If a rescuer meets the criteria under their state’s Good Samaritan law, they will not be liable for civil damages resulting from actions taken to render aid.
Without a Good Samaritan law, potential rescuers could be discouraged from helping someone out of fear of being sued for accidently causing or exacerbating a victim’s injury. Minutes are critical in emergencies, and any delays in providing medical assistance could result in greater injury (or even death) if first responders do not arrive quickly.
What is the Good Samaritan Law in California and When Did it Start?
An example of a Good Samaritan law is the one passed in California in 1980 and codified in Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102. The law protects someone from civil liability for his or her actions arising from attempts to provide assistance (either medical or nonmedical) at the scene of an accident or other emergency. For people who are not medical, law enforcement, or emergency personnel, the law states:
[N]o person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care or assistance at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission other than an act or omission constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.
In other words, you can’t be sued for attempting to help someone in good faith when the situation is a life-threatening emergency.
There is a similar provision pertaining to medical, law enforcement, and emergency personnel that omits any mention of “gross negligence” or “willful or wanton misconduct.” This section does not protect these professionals for actions or omissions during the normal course of their work. In addition, under the law, the “scene of an emergency” does not include “emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered.” The law says its intent is 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.”
Hence, although a layperson acting in good faith to save a car accident victim from a burning car would be covered (immune from civil litigation) under the Good Samaritan law, a doctor in an emergency room setting would not. If the layperson’s actions caused an injury, there would be no legal recourse. If the doctor’s actions caused an injury and negligence could be proven, the doctor would be subject to a medical malpractice civil lawsuit.
Scenarios where the Good Samaritan law could apply include:
- Seeing someone fall into a lake and diving in to rescue them
- Providing CPR to someone who has stopped breathing
- Attempting to stabilize someone who is injured in a serious fall
- Performing the Heimlich maneuver on someone who is choking
- Helping someone out of danger at an accident scene
Who Does California’s Good Samaritan Law Protect?
To be protected under California’s Good Samaritan law, someone has to provide:
- Emergency medical or nonmedical care or assistance
- In good faith
- At the scene of an emergency
If these criteria are met, the person will not be liable for civil damages resulting from their acts or omissions while providing aid. Someone who is not protected by the statute, on the other hand, could be liable for civil damages.
In California, civil damages include both compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages can be economic or non-economic. Examples of economic damages include:
- Medical care including surgeries or physical therapy
- Earnings lost due to being unable to work after an injury
- Reduced earning capacity due to a limited ability to work after an injury
Non-economic damages are more intangible and include compensation for pain and suffering, the inability to enjoy previous activities, or other life changes caused by an injury.
Punitive damages are rare, and in a completely different category from regular compensatory damages. If a California court finds that the defendant’s behavior was particularly despicable or reprehensible, the plaintiff might be awarded punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. To apply punitive damages, a court usually prefers to establish that the defendant acted in a knowingly reckless way that clearly had the potential to harm someone. Whether or not a court will award punitive damages also depends on the defendant’s ability to pay, which is why such damages are often assessed against large corporations.
California’s Good Samaritan law, like similar laws in other states, provides liability protection for ordinary negligence – the failure to act as a reasonably careful person would under the same situation. There is no protection for liability resulting from gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct. Gross negligence generally means failing to take any care in one’s actions, or making an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm. This is different from general negligence, and requires either a total lack of care or significant deviation from what an ordinary person would consider the proper standard of conduct in a given circumstance. Willful or wanton misconduct is worse than negligence, referring to conduct committed with:
- intentional or reckless disregard for someone else’s safety, or
- an intentional disregard of a duty required to protect someone else’s property
Additionally, California’s Good Samaritan law offers no protection from criminal liability. As a result, someone could be charged with committing a crime while providing emergency assistance.
For example, if a person saves someone from a burning building and injures the victim’s arm in the process, the victim could not sue his or her rescuer for the arm injury. However, if the rescuer also takes the victim’s purse and leaves the scene, he or she could be prosecuted for theft.
How Has California’s Good Samaritan Law Changed?
California’s Good Samaritan law originally exempted from civil liability only people who committed acts or omissions while rendering “emergency care” at the place where the emergency happened.
However, this changed after a case decided by the California Court of Appeal in 2007. In that case, someone pulled a car crash victim from a vehicle because he believed it was about to catch fire. Later, the victim sued her rescuer for allegedly causing her to become paralyzed while pulling her from the vehicle. The court held that the defendant could be sued under California’s existing Good Samaritan law because the defendant wasn’t providing “medical care” at the time he allegedly caused the injury.
The case prompted California lawmakers to amend the state’s Good Samaritan law in 2009 so that the law would protect people who render “emergency medical or nonmedical care or assistance.” The amendment’s intent is to avoid discouraging people from providing nonmedical aid in good faith due to fear of litigation.
What Issues are Still Undecided Under California’s Good Samaritan Law?
Although California’s Good Samaritan law was clarified through the amendment discussed above, some gray areas remain. For example, the meaning of “gross negligence” is not exactly defined, and can be open to interpretation in some situations. One example is whether or not failing to help someone could be considered reckless or grossly negligent in some situations. Although such a question has not been fully clarified by the courts, as a general rule, someone who helps an accident victim at the scene in good faith will usually not be found civilly liable under California’s Good Samaritan law.
How are Good Samaritan Laws Different in Other States?
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have Good Samaritan laws. However, Good Samaritan laws differ in key respects from state-to-state. Variations can include who they specifically protect (e.g. medical professionals, other first responders, and/or regular bystanders) and under what circumstances. For example, some states limit protection under their Good Samaritan laws primarily to rescuers with medical training and employees of public education systems. In other states, Good Samaritan laws protect untrained rescuers only in certain types of emergencies such as a heart attack or severe bleeding.
In addition, Good Samaritan laws in some states may not protect someone from civil liability unless the person they are trying to help is in “imminent peril” – that is, the victim is facing an immediate threat of significant danger, injury, or death. In the example at the beginning of this article, a Good Samaritan law incorporating the concept of imminent peril would not have protected the rescuer if no immediate or serious threat to the accident victim existed. In that example, the car being on fire served as such an “immediate or serious” threat.
Another significant difference in the Good Samaritan laws among various states has to do with drug overdoses. Unintentional drug overdoses are a primary cause of death in the U.S. and other countries. The California Department of Public Health reports that about 15,725 California residents died from drug overdoses between 2008 and 2012 (a figure exceeding the 14,860 who died in traffic accidents during the same period).
Despite their prevalence, people who witness drug overdoses are often afraid to call for help because they do not want to be arrested for a drug-related offense. As a result, Good Samaritan laws in some states – including California (AB 472) – protect people who call for medical assistance after witnessing a drug overdose from arrest or prosecution for some low-level drug offenses (but not higher-level offenses like drug dealing).
As with other aspects of Good Samaritan laws, this protection varies by state. For example, in 2019 a Minnesota appeals court affirmed that, under the state’s Good Samaritan law, someone who calls 911 to report a drug overdose cannot be charged by police who respond to the call for possessing, sharing, or using a controlled substance. However, the court declared the police could use information they obtained during the rescue to investigate other crimes.
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