Saturday, December 20, 2008

California court nullifies most of the state's 'Good Samaritan' law

I'm not anti-lawyer or anti-lawsuit. I've only had to originate a lawsuit once in my life, when I was rear-ended while stopped for an emergency vehicle (I was clearly in the right on that one), and the other driver's insurance company kept giving me the runaround, re-assigning my case to somebody else and somebody else and somebody else (who were always out when I called) until I finally said the heck with it and called a lawyer. Last year I thought I had a fairly strong case that I could have sued a hospital over, but I was able to resolve it without doing that.

So I'm not anti-lawyer. There is a saying that it's easy to dislike lawyers until you need one. And I think that a lot of the so-called 'frivilous' lawsuits turn out to not be all that frivilous. A good example was the infamous McDonald's hot coffee case, in which a woman got second degree burns when she spilled some coffee on herself and won a lawsuit against McDonald's for three million dollars. At least that's the part that got reported in the media. Of course the media left out two crucial details: first that McDonald's knew that their coffee had burned other people in the past (including a two year old who spilled someone else's coffee on himself) and had been warned about its temperature by at least one state health department, and second that the judge in the case decided that three million dollars was an excessive amount for punitive damages and knocked it down to $400,000 (probably fair for a problem they'd known about for a long time and chose to ignore.)

Sometimes the courts are the last and only recourse for ordinary people when they are being pushed around by 'Mr. Big' (whether that means the government, a corporation or simply Mr. Big.)

However, I believe that the California Supreme Court erred yesterday when it allowed a lawsuit to go forward against a 'good samaritan.'

At issue was a woman who was paralyzed after being pulled from her car. The rescuer thought that the car might explode. It didn't. However, the rescuer used her best judgment at the time. If she had not pulled her friend out and the car had exploded, then would she have been liable for murder? Probably not, but clearly this is a judgment call and there are going to be times when people using their best judgment get things wrong.

Far more chilling though is that this opens up the system to lawsuits in which everyone who is not directly 'providing medical help' (the words the court used) can be sued for what help they do give. So for example, if you see a car broken down on the side of the road, find a lost child in the mall or see someone trapped in a burning vehicle (as was the case here) your best option may be to do nothing.

Some years ago I was coming back late at night from working in St. Johns, a town in the mountains in eastern Arizona, down a lonely two lane road (so lonely that you can drive for an hour on that road sometimes at night and never see a car coming the other way.) This was on a cold night in February, and the cold wind was blowing. I saw a truck broken down on the side of the road. A woman was in it, and she said that she felt safe enough in the truck but asked if I could pick up her husband (who had started walking home so he could get their other car). She said if I kept on going, I'd see him walking a mile or two down the road. I did, and I gave him a ride. Twelve miles, I gave him a ride. It was frankly cold enough out there that he might have frozen before he got home. Plus, his wife would sooner or later have frozen in the truck. There are no police out there because there is no traffic out there at that time of the night, and I didn't have a cell with me (even if I did, I doubt if it would have been in range out there.) Now, was I rendering 'medical assistance' (as the California court says I should be)? Absolutely not. So according to the court, I was a fool to let him in the car because if anything had happened (suppose he claimed that he wrenched his shoulder putting on the seatbelt?) then I could be sued.

This ruling is chilling to me, because it is exactly the kind of thing that deters people from rendering help where help is needed.

According to he California Supreme Court, the biblical 'Good Samaritan' was a fool. The rich man who walked on by the injured man and the priest were wise. And true, while he was binding up the wounds the 'Good Samaritan' was 'rendering medical assistance' but when he took the man to the inn and paid for his room, he was not directly doing so, and as such the man could have sued him.

So the rich man and the priest are now the smarter ones, and the Good Samaritan was a fool. Is this the kind of society we want?

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