California has no room for good Samaritans


Uh, gentlemen? You three wise men? As your lawyer, I’m advising you not to go there.

No question, the family really needs help, especially with a newborn and all. But why take a chance? And the gifts? Honestly, you might just be opening yourselves up to a lawsuit. Frankincense? Myrrh? Somebody might be allergic. You know what those Roman attorneys say: abundans cautela non nocet -- better safe than sorry.

Crazy notion, isn’t it?

Back then, certainly. Maybe not now. The California Supreme Court has given fresh meaning to “no good deed goes unpunished.” It ruled last week that a woman who yanked a co-worker from a crashed car four years ago, and may have made her injuries worse, can be sued because what she did wasn’t medical care.

The 4-3 decision goes to the heart of another biblical reference: the good Samaritan.


It was Halloween 2004 when several co-workers took two cars to go out for a night on the town. After one car, the second car stopped. Its passenger, Lisa Torti, leaped out to help. Torti, who said she thought the wrecked car was about to catch fire, grabbed Alexandra Van Horn and pulled her out.

Pulling her out “like a rag doll” allegedly made Van Horn’s spinal injuries worse. The court’s ruling allows Van Horn, now a paraplegic, to sue Torti. It also indicates that the provision that shields good Samaritans from liability, enacted by the Legislature in 1980, applies only to people giving medical care in an emergency.

There’s a stink about this, and there should be. The implications for all of us are enormous. It’s another chilling effect in a society where we’re already freezing each other out.

You don’t dare hug a hurting child who’s not your own -- someone might call you a molester and call the cops. You don’t ever apologize for anything, even if it’s your fault; you’d be laying the groundwork for a lawsuit.

And now, when you see an accident or a crime, what will pop into your mind? “I have to help”? Or, “Will I get sued for trying to help?” Whatever your inner Samaritan is telling you, your inner Lawyer might be suggesting you just drive on past.

If everyone feels this way, we could be damaging a social compact that’s deeply rooted -- the impulse to help others in trouble, even strangers.

My pal Michael Shermer, the author, science columnist and founder of the Skeptics Society, told me that evolution has an explanation for altruism. “By extending a helping hand to those who will reciprocate my altruism, I am helping myself.” It’s the Golden Rule, the expectation of getting back what you give.

In a complex world, we struggle to keep this going. But “if a good Samaritan,” Shermer said, “can be held responsible for injuries resulting from the rescue attempt, this sends a signal to the rest of us to shut off our natural inclination to help, and [instead] to reinforce that other natural tendency we have of selfishness.”

Would that Sylmar hospice nurse have risked her own skin last month to help elderly neighbors evacuate ahead of the fire that destroyed their mobile homes? It wasn’t emergency medical care she was giving, after all.

Would the 19 people awarded the Carnegie Medal for heroism this week -- like the man who ran in front of a train to save a child -- have risked their lives if they’d known they were risking a lawsuit too?

Some states have “duty to rescue” laws; in Washington state, it’s a misdemeanor not to help someone who’s seriously injured, unless it would endanger you.

But laws vary. Some places require an “imminent peril” to the victim -- if there isn’t one, the rescuer could be sued. (“Imminent peril” may mean one thing to paramedics and something else to the rest of us, who see crashed cars catch fire all the time on TV and in movies. In reality, collisions are a factor in only 3% of vehicle fires, according to data from the U.S. Fire Administration and a National Fire Protection Assn. survey.

This ruling is practically an engraved invitation to the Legislature to clear up the meaning in that 1980 code. Even with the budget apocalypse, legislators should attend to this fast, before the notion gets set in mental cement, that good Samaritans are just asking to get sued. While they’re at it, why not devote, say, a couple of pennies from every traffic fine to help pay medical costs for victims inadvertently injured by a Samaritan’s rescue attempt, like the woman who brought this case.

As for that New Testament passage, in which the Samaritan comes across a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead, “and bound up his wounds ... and took care of him” -- it’d be a shame to have to put an asterisk there, with the notation, “Not applicable in California.”