Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Good Samaritan and the Unethical Friend

The California Supreme Court is getting condemned from coast to coast because it held, in a 5-4 decision, that California’s Good Samaritan law did not protect Lisa Torti from being sued by her former friend, Alexandra Van Horn. Torti dragged Van Horn from her car in the aftermath of a 2004 accident, and although no one denies that Torti’s intention was to save her from further injury, the action may have caused Van Horn to be paralyzed. That, in our hair-trigger litigation system, is enough to support a lawsuit.

Good Samaritan laws, which every state has, protect good faith rescuers from legal liability. But the highest California court ruled that the Golden State’s version only applies to medical care administered in an emergency situation, as narrowly defined by the court. Because Torti’s actions were not medical, such as administering CPR, and because there is a triable question as to whether the situation met the statutory definition of an emergency, the court ruled that the suit can go forward.

The state Supreme Court’s job is to interpret the law, and its interpretation here is neither unreasonable nor careless. The situation does not neatly fit into the language of the statute, and courts will typically demand a clear bar before they declare that a citizen cannot exercise the right to bring a legal action. Criticism of the court is misplaced: it is not the job of appellate courts to “do the right thing,” but to clarify what the legislature intended to be the law.

The problem here is not legal but ethical. And the unethical one is the paralyzed Ms. Van Horn, who has reciprocated her friend’s efforts to save her by trying to take her money and subject her to the long and ruinous ordeal of a protracted litigation. Whether or not Lisa Torti qualifies under California law as a Good Samaritan, Van Horn is the embodiment of an ungrateful, uncaring and unethical friend.

These appear to be the facts of this sad tale:

On Halloween night in 2004, Van Horn, Torti and another friend smoked marijuana at Torti’s home. Two male friends joined them, and the group went to a bar where they each had several drinks. They left the bar in two cars.

The driver of the car with Van Horn as a passenger lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a light pole while traveling at approximately 45 miles per hour. Torti, a passenger in the other car which was traveling behind and stopped after the accident, exited her vehicle and ran to the Van Horn’s car. She testified at deposition that she placed one arm under Van Horn’s legs and another behind Van Horn’s back, and carried her from the car because she saw smoke and liquid coming from the vehicle and feared the vehicle would catch fire or explode.

(Other witnesses disputed her account, and testified that there were no indications that the car might explode, that Torti had placed Van Horn directly beside the disabled car, and that Torti pulled Van Horn from the vehicle by grabbing her by the arm and yanking her out “like a rag doll.”)

Van Horn was left permanently paralyzed and filed a negligence suit against Torti. She alleged that she was not in need of assistance after the accident and that Torti had caused permanent damage to her spinal cord by dragging her from the vehicle.

It doesn’t matter whether Van Horn is correct that her paralysis came as the result of Torti’s actions. It doesn’t matter that her lawyer may have convinced her to bring the lawsuit. Her friend acted quickly in an emergency situation. Whatever the legal or statutory definition of “emergency” may be, and fully conceding that this is the definition a court must use, the aftermath of an automobile accident is what normal human beings regard as “emergencies,” meaning that the situation demands some rapid action and is not an appropriate time to, for example, suggest a hand of canasta or discuss global warming. Maybe Torti saw something leaking from the car and reasonably assumed that an explosion was likely. Maybe she didn’t actually see something leaking, but believed that any time a car crashes there is a danger of an explosion, and thought it was prudent to get her friend out of the car.

None of this matters ethically, although it is legally relevant. What matters is that Torti was trying to help her friend, and Van Horn knows it. For Van Horn to sue Torti now is indefensible. It is ungrateful, mean, venal and irresponsible. Some will argue that Van Horn’s paralysis justifies her seeking financial assistance anywhere the law of torts will find it, including from the pockets of a well-intentioned and caring friend. Wrong. Having to suffer a major life tragedy may explain an individual’s abandonment of basic fairness and concern for others, but it cannot justify it. Van Horn’s misfortune has not earned her the right to mitigate her own circumstances by inflicting misfortune on others.

No ethical standard supports her actions. Is she treating her friend the way she would want to be treated, were the situation’s reversed? Of course not. Would philosopher John Rawls’ famous “veil of ignorance” approach to justice, in which the decision-maker behaves as if he or she doesn’t know which party he or she represents in the equation, ever commend Van Horn’s conduct? No. And her well-publicized victimization of a Good Samaritan friend probably guarantees that some future potential rescuers will avoid the risk of helping their own imperiled friends. Another car, in another accident, on another day, just might blow up.

Editorials across the country are blaming the California legislature for poor drafting and the California Supreme Court for narrow statutory construction. But no statute is perfect, and real events have a way of finding every flaw and hole buried in a statute’s text. Some blame Van Horn’s lawyer, but his job is to tell his client what she can do under the law, not what she ought to do as a decent human being. The unethical culprit here is the unlucky woman in a wheelchair, whose lack of fairness, gratitude, courage and responsibility is inflicting undeserved misfortune on a friend whose only mistake, it seems, was trying to help her.

Instead of blaming her friend and trying to take her money, Van Horn should have said, simply,“Thank you.”

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