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COUNSELOR’S CORNER:

You’d better watch out who you try to help these days. Or perhaps more specifically, if you’re going to help someone you better make sure that you actually do help that person.

Toward the end of last year, the California Supreme Court came down with a ruling that puts the behavior of someone attempting to be a good Samaritan under the microscope.

This all goes back to Halloween 2004. On that night, a gentleman named Anthony Watson crashed his car into a light pole. A woman named Lisa Torti was driving by and saw what happened.

Torti saw that there was a passenger in Watson’s car and feared the car was going to catch fire, so pulled passenger Alexandra Van Horn out of the car. The result of Torti’s attempt to help was a lawsuit.

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Keep that in mind if you attempt to be a good Samaritan, since the California State Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 that “a good Samaritan who attempts to help someone might be liable if he or she does not exercise due care and ends up causing harm,” according to the decision written by Justice Carlos Moreno.

There is a statute that was passed in 1970 to protect good Samaritans that says people are immune from being sued if they render “emergency care at the scene of an emergency.”

This sounds clear to me, and one would think it would cover Torti’s situation; however, the state Supreme Court ruled that this law applies only to medical emergencies.

I have no idea where that interpretation came from, and neither do the three justices who disagreed with the majority. Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote in his dissent that “under the majority’s interpretation, you are protected while giving someone CPR on the sidewalk but not while rescuing someone from a burning building.”

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What kind of sense does that make? Where is the reasonableness of the distinction between a medical emergency (i.e., someone having a heart attack) and a nonmedical emergency (i.e., rescuing someone from a burning building.)

Baxter further stated “there is no reason why one kind of lay volunteer aid should be immune, while another is not.”

I couldn’t agree more. So the case against Torti, which was originally dismissed, has now been reinstated.

Apparently there are other witnesses to what took place who did not think that the car was going to catch fire, and the allegation is that Torti pulled Van Horn out of the car with a little too much force.

Moreno concluded that our law “is more concerned with holding people accountable for doing harm than with encouraging people to perform acts of bravery.”

That analysis is accurate but depressing. I think it’s pretty impressive when people attempt to do the right thing, and I don’t like them being discouraged from doing so.

I grew up in the days of the Kitty Genovese incident in New York City, and if that doesn’t ring a bell, you might want to Google it. I try to encourage people not to stand by but rather to get involved.

Torti could have done nothing; instead she decided to do what she thought was right. That decision may now cost her a whole lot of money, and I find that to be very unfortunate.

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 CHARLES J. UNGER is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger & Grover, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. He may be reached at (818) 244-8694 or at www.charlieunger.com.


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