Perils For The Good Samaritan
At some point in most of our lives we were taught the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, put less archaically, treat others as you want to be treated. Generally speaking, many of us try to live by a version of this concept, including helping those around us when we seem them in need. Whether it’s as simple as holding the door open for a total stranger or the more onerous driving three hours into the middle of nowhere to help out a friend whose car broke down, I would venture that almost everyone, at least once in their life, has helped another human being in need. A Court of Appeals decision from earlier this year is a good reminder, however, that not all good deeds go unpunished.
In Priscilla O’Malley v. Hospitality Staffing Solutions, an opinion issued on January 31, 2018, the Court of Appeals upheld the long-standing rule in California with respect to the legal duty to assist another person. This two-part rule goes as follows: (1) Ordinarily, a person has no legal duty to help another person but (2) if a person does help another, and does so without exercising reasonable care, that person may be responsible for damages under a “negligent undertaking” theory of liability. The facts of this case were as follows. A woman checked into a hotel room in the early evening. She did not answer her husband’s calls for several hours. He suspected that she may have been injured. The husband called the hotel and a maintenance worker checked the room. The worker reported that no one was there. Hours later, the husband went to the hotel room and found his wife lying on the floor. She had suffered a brain aneurism. Turning back to the two-part rule, let’s break this down quickly.
The first part of this rule simply states that, generally speaking, I have no legal duty to help another person. If I see a car accident, I have no legal obligation to help any of the victims. Of course, not helping might be considered unethical, I might be considered morally reprehensible, or I could get publicly shamed and attacked on social media; however, what I haven’t done is broken any legal duty. Why is this the rule? There are a number of policy reasons, but there are two principle reasons. First, as a general rule, we recognize that people shouldn’t have a legal obligation to risk their lives. If I see a car accident and one of the cars is on fire, while it might be courageous for me to rush into the car and drag out the driver I shouldn’t be legally obligated to risk my life to do so. And second, also as a general rule, we recognize that not everyone is equipped to deal with certain situations. A firefighter in his or her prime condition is going to be both more physically capable and better trained to deal with an emergency situation than a retired, frail 90-year old former librarian. So to impose the same legal obligation on both persons simply makes no sense.
The second part of the rule means that, while you generally have no legal obligation to help, if you choose to help then you risk liability if, by trying to help, you cause harm. Now wait a second, you might be saying, what about the Good Samaritan Law? What you’re thinking of is California Health and Safety Code section 1799.102, which provides that “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.” Note the very big caveat: you’re protected unless you are grossly negligent or engage in willful or wanton misconduct. What does this mean? Well, the obvious example is that if you’re not a neurosurgeon, and probably even if you are, you can’t randomly decide to conduct brain surgery on an accident victim you find the side of the road because you think they have a brain injury. More practically speaking, what it means is that if you try to help someone and they end up dying or get injured, you’re at risk for being sued.
Why, you might ask, would you be at risk for being sued, as it seems pretty easy to avoid acting grossly negligent or engaging in willful or wanton misconduct? Well, one of the mistakes people often make is failing to recognize that you can still be sued even if you’ve done nothing wrong. Indeed, one of the reasons defense lawyers are in business is because hundreds of unmeritorious lawsuits are filed every day and the victims of these lawsuits need attorneys to defend them. So even if you know, in your mind, that you provided competent, reasonable care or assistance at the scene of an emergency, that doesn’t mean that the person you tried to help won’t turn around and sue you if things don’t go well. Even if, at the end of the day, you’ll prevail, defending against a lawsuit will likely cost you significant time and money that you’ll never be able to get back.
So what is the point of all of this? It certainly is not to convince you to never help people, as this world would be a much poorer place if no one ever helped another person. Rather, the point is simply to open the eyes of potential good samaritans to recognize that in helping others they need to make sure they fully understand the risks they are taking on, not just for themselves but for their family and other people who rely on them who could be affected by a resulting lawsuit. While people may be quick to recognize the physical risks in any given situation, the desire to help can sometimes override the consideration of the legal risks that a given situation may create. So just as you should avoid getting caught in a burning building while trying to help others, you should also avoid getting caught in the middle of a lawsuit as a result of good intentions with bad results.
TLDR: Good intentions are not always enough when it comes to helping people – if you help another person, you may be putting yourself at risk for being sued.
If you’re involved in a lawsuit or risk management and have any questions regarding current or potential legal issues, we would urge you to contact an attorney as soon as possible to obtain advice, guidance and representation. At Baker, Keener & Nahra, we have the experience, skill, and drive to get the best possible results for our clients, no matter the size of the case or the scope of the problem. So if we can be of any assistance to you, please contact us and let us know how we can help.