The Zwerdling Law Firm is investigating a case where a Good Samaritan stopped at an accident scene, then proceeded to turn his vehicle around so his headlights would illuminate the accident. Unfortunately, the lights blinded an oncoming vehicle driven by our client. Because of the blinding light, our client struck accident-related debris on the roadway, lost control of his vehicle, and suffered serious injuries. Our office is faced with the legal question of whether we can file suit against the well-intentioned good Samaritan for causing injury to our client. It should be noted that our client was a totally innocent bystander in this situation.
For public policy purposes, California’s Good Samaritan laws encourage bystanders to provide free emergency or non-emergency assistance at the scene of emergencies without fear of legal repercussions if they actually end up harming the person(s) they are helping. These laws are designed to shield the Good Samaritans who act out of the goodness of their own hearts and offer care for an injured fellow citizen from legal liability in emergency situations. In fact, the relevant statute, California Health & Safety Code Section 1799.102, states that “it is the intent of the Legislature to encourage other individuals to…assist others in need during emergency, while ensuring that those volunteers who provide care or assistance act responsibly.”
Section 1799.102 provides that “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.” In 2009, the Legislature amended the code section to include protection for Good Samaritans who provide both medical and non-medical emergency assistance. Notably, the law specifically explains that a person cannot be held liable for civil damages unless their actions or omissions qualify as “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.”
One interesting aspect in the Good Samaritan law’s language is ascertaining what in fact constitutes “gross negligence.” According to the California Civil Jury Instruction #450B, gross negligence is defined as “the lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation.” As such, in order to find that a Good Samaritan-Defendant acted with gross negligence, a jury would need to determine that the Good Samaritan’s actions in attempting to offer emergency care substantially deviated from how the normal, ordinarily prudent person would act. This extreme lack of care is a high burden to meet, but not quite as extreme as “willful or wanton misconduct.”
Willful or Wanton Misconduct
“Willful or wanton misconduct,” on the other hand, is defined as a “conduct by a person who may have no intent to cause harm, but who intentionally performs an act so unreasonable and dangerous that he or she knows or should know it is highly probable that harm will result.” As such, an irresponsible Good Samaritan who acts with willful or wanton misconduct must have had reason to know that their rescue attempt was dangerous and would most likely cause further harm to the person in need of emergency assistance. This is a rare situation. Gross negligence is by far a more common and probable occurrence in Good Samaritan situations.
With this law in mind, well intentioned, non-professional rescuers should always be aware that they could be legally liable for injuries if a jury finds they acted with gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.