Gospel of Luke, chapter 7, verses 25-37:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead with no clothes.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.

The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

As a child growing up in Nebraska, we were taught at an early age — in Church and in the Boy Scouts — that if you did good, if you did the right thing, you were protected under the law.

It was drummed into us to always be on the lookout for the hurt and the wounded. If you came upon a car crash and you saw someone trapped inside, it was your moral duty to leap from the fresco and into the rescue.

You were to pull that person out of the wreckage at any cost to your life and limb — or theirs — and drag them to safety.

“What if,” one of us Scouts asked, “we hurt the person dragging them to safety? What if we try CPR and we don’t do it right and we kill the person? Then what?”

“Then,” our Troop Leader assured us, “you are protected by the State of Nebraska’s Good Samaritan Law. You cannot be blamed for helping a person in need. The state wants you to help those in distress.  It is your duty as a good citizen.”

Many states have Good Samaritan Laws.  Here’s how the current Nebraska Good Samaritan Law 25-21,186 reads:

Emergency care at scene of emergency; persons relieved of civil liability, when. No person who renders emergency care at the scene of an accident or other emergency gratuitously, shall be held liable for any civil damages as a result of any act or omission by such person in rendering the emergency care or as a result of any act or failure to act to provide or arrange for medical treatment or care for the injured person.

Imagine my adulthood moral confusion when I read this morning that a woman in California was being sued for being a prime example of a good citizen under the state’s Good Samaritan Law:

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.

“I know [Van Horn] has a lot of financial issues and her life has changed,” she said. “But it’s not my fault. I can’t be angry at her, only the path she has chosen to take. I can only pray it helps her.”

“I don’t have any more fight left,” Torti told ABCNews.com, choking back tears. “It’s really emotional.”

In a stunning 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of California ruled against Good Samaritan Torti by allowing Van Horn to sue for her paralysis. The court majority said that the Good Samaritan law is a shield intended only for those that provide “medical assistance” and not just “rescue.”

If Van Horn had been drowning in a swimming pool and Torti yanked her out of the pool, provided CPR, and Van Horn became paralyzed — the Good Samaritan Law would protect Torti — but since the car was not on fire when Torti rescued Van Horn without medical aid, the law is not provided as a shield for Torti.

This California court ruling will do great damage to Good Samaritan Laws across the United States because people will fail to want to act — precisely what the law is intended to avoid — or they will have an internal debate before acting as they try to decide if their intervention is “medical” or merely “rescuing” and in those precious moments while that decision to act or not is being debated is the difference between living and dying.

12 Comments

  1. How horrible for her.
    In the UK we do not assist because of the danger of either being conned by tricksters, being accused of being child molesters if we assist children and being sued for giving CPR and causing damage.

  2. That’s amazing, Nicola! So there’s no lawful protection for those that are in the immediate area that might be able to help someone in need? What if someone were stuck in a burning car? No help from the gawkers?
    There are some “Good Samaritan-like Laws” in the USA that actually *require* you to step forward or face prosecution. They’re usually used in drug cases — “You knew your friend was high before he got into that car and you didn’t stop him” — but the twisting of the intention of the idea of the Good Samaritan Law is chilling.

  3. It seems that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. It’s a shame that someone could have been so well meaning and to have things go all wrong.

  4. It is a frightful story, Gordon. One friend helped another and a terrible result ruined both their lives. I still think I’d rather err on the side of the honestly good intentioned help than just standing around waiting for someone else to step up.

  5. This is what you are “allowed to do”
    * to keep the casualty warm with jackets, blankets, or other clothing or material available
    * to reassure the casualty and to try to keep their attention and keep them conscious
    * to not move the casualty at all if they may have broken bones or an injured back, neck or head
    * to not remove a motorcyclist’s helmet unless it is absolutely necessary
    You are NOT allowed to give CPR unless you have a current appropriate first aid certificate.

  6. Nicola —
    What about impending peril? A person in a car crash with gasoline leaking? The person is drowning? The person is struck by lightning in a storm and a downed electrical wire is dangling above them? A child is calling for help from a second storey window in a burning house?
    Can you act to save them or not?

  7. I think that is covered by ringing 999 😉 – Emergency services!
    Car crash and Gasoline leaking – they tell you to turn off the engine and extinguish cigarettes.
    However if they have anything “broken” – ribs, legs, necks, backs I would guess not as moving could aggravate. I will check with my man 😉
    As for drowning people – even the police are under orders not to ……
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article2512401.ece
    I guess similar would apply to the burning house example.
    Some of this is law some is general advice given to the public.
    Thank goodness there are still some people who will and do take the risk.

  8. I can’t believe what I read on the link you provide, Nicola:

    The emergency services are being told not to attempt to save drowning people because of health and safety restrictions, it has emerged.
    Amid a growing row over the failure of two police support officers to try to save a boy from drowning, both the police and the fire service disclosed this weekend that their frontline staff are instructed not to enter the water in case they put themselves in danger.
    Officers are no longer required to be trained in swimming or lifesaving. One police force closed its training pool five years ago for health and safety reasons after an accident and it has not reopened.
    An inquest last week heard how two police community support officers (PCSOs) had stood by while a 10-year-old boy drowned in a pond in Wigan. Senior officers with the Greater Manchester force, which employed them, said they acted “correctly”.

    Stunning!
    That would never fly in the USA — have the police just stand by and watching a drowning child die — you’d at least have to make some sort of cursory attempt at a rescue not to be beaten up in the press as a coward.

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