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Should Good Samaritans Be Held Liable for their Negligence In NY?

As noted in our News section, Los Angeles personal injury attorney Mark Williams challenges commonly-held beliefs, and proclaims that the laws barring injury or negligence claims against Good Samaritans should be narrowly read and applied rather than expanded. At first blush,this proposition sounds like rich fodder for tort-reform advocates, for, after all, how could you want to penalize someone who is voluntarily helping out a friend or stranger in distress? Although I think that both Mr. Williams and the California Supreme Court may have gone too far in this particular case, they do raise some interesting points.

By way of background, Mr. Williams wrote his op-ed piece in response to the L.A. Times' earlier published opinion that the California Supreme Court's ruling in Van Horn v. Watson wrongly narrowed the Good Samaritan immunity shield rather than expanding the immunity afforded to helpful accident bystanders. The editorial board of the L.A. Times expressed their concern that by holding Good Samaritans potentially liable for their actions, would be helpers will instead opt out for fear of a lawsuit. And if they are right, that would indeed be tragic. 

But, as noted by Mr. Williams, in their rush to judgment, the L.A. Times oversimplified matters, and thereby overlooked facts that were crucial to the Supreme Court's decision. In particular, after a night of partying at which both plaintiff and defendant Lisa Torti were present - the plaintiff was badly injured when the car she was in lost control and crashed. "Good Samaritan" Lisa Torti, who had been smoking marijuana and drinking, ran up and quickly pulled her friend - the plaintiff - from the front passenger-side of the smashed and steaming car, leaving her on the ground next to the car. In the process, however, Torti ruptured Van Horn's spine, and will be paralyzed for life. According to Van Horn, had Torti merely left her until the firefighters arrived shortly thereafter, they would have properly immobilized her neck and back, and thereby likely prevented her paralysis.

The issue in that case was whether the case should be dismissed on the papers, and before it ever reaches a jury, or whether a jury should be allowed to hear the case, and decide whether Torti's diminished capacity - i.e., her being drunk or otherwise intoxicated played a role - however small - in causing Van Horn's injuries. The divided Supreme Court opined that Van Horn should be afforded a jury trial.

If you are still inclined to think that the California Supreme Court's decision was unduly liberal, you should be aware that the decision would probably have been the same in New York, because New York law dictates that an innocent bystander who voluntarily undertakes to help another must exercise reasonable care in rendering this assistance. And, as you have probably guessed, the "reasonableness" of the care that is rendered is generally an issue that must be determined by a jury.


Jonathan Cooper
Employment Litigation and School Negligence Lawyer