What To Do If You’re First On The Scene of an Accident

Robert J. Mandell discusses the California good samaritan law.

Being the first to arrive on the scene of a serious accident can be a horrific experience. In these situations, there is a high probability that someone is going to need emergency assistance. But, just because someone needs help, does that mean that you’re obligated to offer it? If you choose not to get involved, as do some bystanders, can there be legal repercussions for your decision? What if you render assistance and the victim’s condition worsens or they die? Can you be held legally responsible? The California Good Samaritan law may or may not protect you from liability.

Many states have enacted “Good Samaritan” statutes to encourage bystanders to become involved when someone is in need. These statutes offer some guidelines, but they are often vague. California Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102, which delineates the California Good Samaritan law, seems to offer complete immunity from liability only to “medical, law enforcement, and emergency personnel” operating outside the confines of “emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered.”

The Supreme Court and the California Good Samaritan Law

This was confirmed on Dec. 19, 2008 when The Supreme Court of California, in the case of Alexandra Van Horn v. Lisa Torti, ruled in a sharply divided 4-3 decision that Torti was not protected from legal action under California’s current Good Samaritan laws because the statute immunizing rescuers from liability applies only if the individual is providing medical care in an emergency situation. Torti is not a health-care worker and believed she was acting in her friend’s best interest when she removed her from a wrecked car in 2004. Van Horn subsequently became a paraplegic. This decision was widely covered in the news, including a Time Magazine article.

In its decision, the supreme court made reference to common-law principles, saying that a “person has no duty to come to the aid of another. If, however, a person elects to come to someone’s aid, he or she has a duty to exercise due care. Thus, 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.” Again, here is the applicable statement from Statute 1799.102 … “no 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.”

It Is Ultimately a Matter of Conscience

States rely on people’s conscience to guide them in how much they should help someone involved in an accident. But this brings up another gray area. Some individuals are more capable, inclined to become involved, and even more compassionate than others, so how do you quantify how much assistance should be considered reasonable and appropriate?

Every accident is different, therefore, every injury and set of circumstances may also vary greatly. With so much variance, it seems impossible to put a cookie cutter set of rules in place. No state expects you to attempt surgery on the side of the road, but they do hope you will render what would be considered a reasonable level of assistance. But the fact remains that “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct” may just be in the eye of the beholder.

Good Samaritan laws are not intended to offer you blanket protection in the event that your assistance does not help the individual. The California good samaritan law is no exception. But they do offer some protection if you’re trying to help as long as you do not demonstrate reckless behavior while doing so. Lawsuits are always a very real possibility. The fear of being sued and losing prevents some people from getting involved at all. Good intentions are not always rewarded. If you have offered assistance to someone in an accident and they decide to bring suit against you because of your actions, you need to engage an experienced attorney in order to protect yourself.

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Call Robert Mandell to Discuss Your Case

Robert Mandell is a personal injury and wrongful death attorney, and lead litigator at The Mandell Law Firm in Woodland Hills. He is experienced and knowledgeable in all areas of personal injury law, including accidents and negligence. Call him for a free evaluation of your claim. It’s important to work with a personal injury attorney who has demonstrated a determination to fight for his clients. Robert Mandell and the team at Mandell Law will fight to protect your rights. To arrange a free consultation, contact Robert Mandell at The Mandell Law Firm in Woodland Hills. 818.886.6600.

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