Good Samaritan Laws and Child Abuse

You’re probably familiar with the term “Good Samaritan,” but very rarely do you probably think about it beyond it characterizing someone performing a kind act for another.

It’s a term stemming from the New Testament wherein someone named “The Good Samaritan” attends to a man, beaten and dying on the side of the road. He does so despite having no affiliation or duty to the injured man.

Did you know there are laws referred to as “Good Samaritan” laws? They are the topic we’ll be discussing here. We will review a 2015 unpublished paper by Sara Popovich called “California’s Good Samaritan Law: Correcting Ambiguities to Induce Action.”

In a more modern context, Good Samaritan laws protect anyone from being subject to negative legal consequences if they try to help someone in physical distress or danger.

Ideally, the law should protect you if, for example, you find someone having a heart attack. And while performing chest compressions and saving their life, you also break their ribs. You don’t want the person whose life you saved suing you for freaking his ribs. Ideally, the Good Samaritan laws would protect you from being sued.

It is interesting to note that this law was first brought to the country by California. Though it has since been adopted in varying forms throughout the U.S.

Let’s further examine the details of the Good Samaritan Law in California:

Protecting Doctors from Common Law Duty of Care

At first, for context, let’s look at basic common law duties of care as a citizen:

Bystanders, generally, have no legal duty to act to help when they see someone needing assistance or protection from danger.

The Good Samaritan law only comes into play once someone starts to help another person. Once you’ve provided aid, it’s expected that you don’t further the chances that the victim is harmed. Plus, as a rescuer, causing the victim harm because they’re detrimentally relying on your help could leave you open to legal ramifications.

Let’s elaborate on that second distinction.

If, by providing assistance, you leave a victim more vulnerable than she was before you started to help, you can’t stop helping after the process begins. If you stop providing help (say, by abandoning the assistance effort), you open yourself up to liability due to your failure to provide the proper care.

As a response to the unfair treatment of citizens trying to help, Good Samaritan laws were applied in every state to override the common law duty of care. It’s been this way since 1959, with various iterations of the law depending on the state and jurisdiction. In some places, there are even general duty laws that expect you to try rescue people in need and will penalize inaction.

For California, specifically, when the Good Samaritan law was introduced, it was only to protect medical practitioners from malpractice while providing emergency care. Prior to 1959, medical professionals were left vulnerable to legal action due to the perils of common law duty of care.

How Common Law Has Evolved Over the Years

Like most things, Good Samaritan statutes in California have changed over the years.

1980:

Any individual providing good-faith care at an emergency scene was provided immunity, as of 1980. While the 1959 introduction only focused on medical professionals, this statue extended to any qualifying person providing aid in an urgent scenario.

2008:

This iteration of the law was put to the test in 2008 when Lisa Torti horribly injured Alexandra Van Horn while pulling her from her vehicle after a car accident.

Van Horn’s vertebrae were damaged so severely by the rescue attempt that she was left a paraplegic. Torti had feared that the victim’s car was going to catch on fire, so she acted as decisively as possible.

Torti was sued by Van Horn due to the actions—and Torti claimed Good Samaritan immunity, as per the specifications of the 1980 version. At first glance, this might seem sound, but the plaintiff convinced the court to adopt a narrow interpretation of the law. Because pulling someone from a vehicle does not qualify as medical care, the Good Samaritan laws did not apply to Torti, and therefore Tori was liable for the harms she caused Van Horn. Lacking immunity, Torti was held responsible for the injured woman’s paraplegia.

2009:

With the above ruling came plenty of disagreement. The dissent was best explained by Justice Ray Baxter, who thought excluding nonmedical care from the statute made little sense and was unfair. He felt, for instance, if a hitchhiker were hanging from a cliff, and pulled up by a bystander, he/she could now sue that person for injuring their arm.

The California legislature also felt Van Horn’s victory in the case was unjust and didn’t reasonably interpret the 1980 Good Samaritan law.

In August 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new bill into law that revised the 1980 iteration. By applying more precise language, the statute clarified that those providing emergency medical or nonmedical care were immune to legal consequences. Primarily, this change was made to encourage civilians to be “Good Samaritans” when emergencies arose.

2012:

An additional Good Samaritan statute was passed in September 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown made the “911 Good Samaritan Law” official.

Limited immunity from arrest or prosecution was given for minor drug violations if a person helped during an overdose. This law came into existence after it became clear that drug overdose deaths were the leading subset of accidental deaths across the state.

Are “Good Samaritan” Statutes Still Too Vague?

The language of California’s “Good Samaritan” law remains ambiguous. For instance, what constitutes an emergency? It may be partly due to these ambiguities that many people hesitate to help when help is needed.

Good Samaritan Laws and Child Abuse

How does this relate to child abuse allegations? Remember that the Good Samaritan laws are intended to shield do-gooders from liability after they’ve unintentionally hurt someone. This is similar to a “defense of others” argument: You shouldn’t be punished for unintentionally hurting someone when really all you were trying to do was protect the person from getting hurt.

If you were falsely accused of committing child abuse after trying to prevent a child from getting hurt, you might consider if and how the Good Samaritan laws can help you in your defense.