In December 2008, the California Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, narrowly interpreted existing statutory protections for Good Samaritans coming to the aid of accident victims, limiting the application of the statute to those rendering "medical assistance." In the case of Van Horn v. Watson (2008) 45 Cal.4th 322, the California Supreme Court refused to extend the Good Samaritan immunity to a crash victim’s friend and co-worker who pulled the victim from a wrecked vehicle in fear of fire or explosion. The new law, Senate Bill 39 and Assembly Bill 83, signed into law by Governor Schwartznegger, immediately provides a qualified immunity to the rescuers, so long as they do not act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner.
The AB 83 was authored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer who offered these supporting comments:
Although the Supreme Court’s recent Good Samaritan
ruling may be accurate regarding the Court’s narrow
reading of 1980s legislative intent, it is also an
important invitation to the Legislature to quickly
clarify the Legislature’s goal of encouraging Good
Samaritan acts — whether of a medical or non-medical
nature – so long as such acts are done in good faith
and responsibly. My bill responds directly to the
Supreme Court’s invitation for legislative
clarification in a measured manner that encourages
Good Samaritan acts that can save lives.
A similar bill, SB 39, authored by Senator John Benoit, extended immunity to disaster relief volunteers and workers. Both bills were supported by the Consumer Attorneys of California which noted that "society should encourage citizens to voluntarily aid others at the scene of an emergency."
Under common law principles, no citizen is required to render assistance to another in need of emergency service at an accident scene. When a citizen stepped forward and did so, however, even if it involved their own personal peril, the law was murky as to whether or not they could be legally liable if they did not perform the rescue carefully. The new law clarifies that such rescuers will not be liable unless they act in a grossly negligent or reckless manner. "Gross negligence" has been defined as conduct that involves "so slight a degree of care as to justify the belief there was indifference to the interest and welfare of others." (46 Cal.Jur.3d, Negligence 100). "Reckless misconduct" is conduct that is "so unreasonable and dangerous that [the person knows] it is highly probable that harm will result." (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747).
We wholeheartedly agree with adoption of this new law. We should never discourage our fellow citizens from stepping up and helping those in need of emergency attention and help. That is what the old law did.