I'm obliged to Curtis F. for e-mailing me the link to this story.
The California Supreme Court has recently ruled on one aspect of an issue that's of very real importance to all of us - whether or not we should render assistance to an injured person, or one apparently in danger, in an emergency. I've highlighted the relevant paragraph in bold print.
No good deed goes unpunished, or so goes the saying.
Such was the case with Lisa Torti, who is being sued for pulling a now-paralyzed friend from the wreckage of a Los Angeles car accident in 2004.
The victim's lawyers claim the Good Samaritan bumbled the rescue and caused injury by yanking her friend "like a rag doll" to safety.
But Torti -- now a 30-year-old interior designer from Las Vegas -- said she thought she had seen smoke and feared the car would explode. She claims she was only trying to help her friend, Alexandra Van Horn, and her own life has been adversely affected by the incident.
. . .
The California Supreme Court ruled this week that Van Horn may sue Torti for allegedly causing her friend's paralysis. The case -- the first of its kind -- challenges the state's liability shield law that protects people who give emergency assistance.
The court ruled 4-3 that only those administering medical care have legal immunity, but not those like Torti, who merely take rescue action. The justices said that the perceived danger to Van Horn in the wrecked car was not "medical."
The court majority said the 1980 Emergency Medical Service Act, which Torti's lawyers cited for protection, was intended only to encourage people to learn first aid and use it in emergencies, not to give Good Samaritans blanket immunity when they act negligently.
Van Horn's lawsuit will go on to trial court to determine if Torti is to blame for Van Horn's paralysis.
But some legal experts say the ruling may discourage people from trying to save lives.
. . .
Peter Keane, a dean emeritus and professor of law at Golden Gate Law School, said the impact of the court ruling will "be a bad one" and have repercussions in about a dozen other states that have Good Samaritan laws.
He said the ruling will force ordinary people to be "reflective" before coming to the aid of a person in an emergency.
"It's much too literal an interpretation of the immunity law for Good Samaritans," he told ABCNews.com. "Now it puts the onus on the lay person in an emergency situation to try to figure out the nuances of what medical care means, something that could subject them to liability later on."
There's a lot more to this story than I've published above - you can read all the details at the link - but the 'meat' of it is in these paragraphs.
I trained as a first aid practitioner with St. John Ambulance in South Africa during my teenage years. As an adult I've had to assist at more than a few scenes of injury, and found my training very useful. However, all of those occasions were outside the USA, where this country's tort-crazy legal system didn't apply.
I can see two sides to this dilemma. On the one hand, I'm genuinely outraged that any person trying to help another, in good faith, should be subject to legal proceedings like this. In an emergency, there's simply no time for long-winded, well-reasoned debate about whether or not to do something. I've been there, done that, and got the T-shirt to prove it. I've stood alongside smoking vehicles in the aftermath of an accident, and been all too aware that if any leaking gasoline comes into contact with a spark - or even a hot metal surface, like an exhaust - an explosion and/or fire could result. Under those circumstances, I've twice helped to remove injured people from a motor vehicle. Sure, there was a risk of exacerbating their existing injuries, and having been trained in first aid, I knew that - but what of the greater danger of incineration in a gasoline fire?
Sometimes one has to gamble on which is the greater risk. In the heat of the moment, there's no choice.
On the other hand, I can see where the court is coming from on this one. If the danger proves to have been negligible, or even non-existent, despite the impressions of those on the scene at the time that it was very real, what then? If a bystander causes further injury, or makes an existing injury worse, by getting someone out of a vehicle, when it was later determined that there was no need to do so, what's their liability? This question is particularly important if they're not medically trained and able to assess the injury(ies) concerned.
Trouble is, when one's on the scene, one doesn't have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. After the fact, when the smoke has cleared and everyone's safe, an accident investigator can check out the scene at his/her leisure and make an informed judgment. However, just after things went pear-shaped, with all the noise and confusion and chaos, that sort of rational, reasoned approach isn't always possible. Sometimes one has to act in the heat of the moment, for fear that something worse may happen if one doesn't.
There was a case in South Africa where a driver was trapped in a burning car. No emergency vehicles had yet arrived, and he was screaming in agony as he was being burned alive. A bystander snatched a gun from the holster of another person and emptied it at the driver, trying to put him out of his agony. He waited for the police, handed over the gun, and openly stated what he'd done, and why. He was arrested and charged with murder: but an autopsy revealed that no bullets had struck the driver, who'd died of burns and smoke inhalation, so the charge was dropped.
There was widespread shock and horror at what the bystander had done . . . but let me assure you, readers, if you've ever had to watch (and even worse, hear, and smell) a person burn to death (and I have, on three occasions), you'd be sorely tempted to do likewise, as the most merciful thing possible under the circumstances. Believe it. It's true. The prosecuting authority in South Africa publicly acknowledged, in withdrawing the case, that the circumstances were 'extraordinary', and indicated that if the case had gone to trial, the charge would probably have been dropped to culpable homicide rather than murder, on those grounds.
That was an extreme incident, of course, but what about more normal circumstances, such as those described in the news report above? What's the answer? Should those trying to help, in good faith, be legally shielded from any negative consequences of their actions? Part of me says, "Not just 'Yes', but 'Hell, yes'!" - because if they're not, who's going to try to help at all? Won't it be 'safer' to leave someone to potentially die, rather than expose oneself to the risk of a lawsuit?
On the other hand, what if their good-faith efforts make things worse? What if their assessment of the risk was seriously out of whack? What if they'd been drinking, and in their less-than-fully-competent mental state, made an error of judgment?
I honestly don't know the answer. Readers, I'd love to hear your take on this in Comments, particularly those who are police, fire or EMS personnel.