Can You be Sued for Helping a Car Accident Victim?

bystanders at scene of car accident

Someone who witnesses a car accident or other traumatic personal injury accident and tries to assist the victims in some way is commonly known as a “Good Samaritan,” based on the biblical story.

Modern societies seem to have evolved a fear of being a Good Samaritan for mostly legal reasons. Similar to the reflexive fear of snakes, many people confronted with an accident or situation where someone is in need of immediate care would report that they wanted to help, but were afraid to “get involved”, fearing legal liabilities and various inconveniences and obligations. It’s the pervasive and pessimistic view that no good deed goes unpunished.

good samaritan symbolically extends hand to car accident victim

On the other hand, there are many selfless people who will instinctively come to the aid of another; in fact, an average of nearly 80 Americans die each year attempting to rescue or help someone in distress.

It’s not uncommon to find news of rescuers and bystanders risking personal injury and death by attempting to save car accident victims.

Sacramento Car Accident Witnesses Risk Their Lives

A truck driver and other motorists recently attempted to rescue a driver from a burning vehicle after a crash on Interstate 5, near the Laguna off ramp in Elk Grove.

After the car hit a guardrail and overturned, the truck driver raced to the scene with a fire extinguisher while two other people tried to extract the driver.

Other truckers stopped and used their own fire extinguishers, putting themselves in danger in an attempt to rescue the man.

first responders quickly treating car accident victim

In May of this year, a 57 year-old tow truck driver from Marysville was seriously injured in the Sacramento region near Roseville trying to warn drivers of a pedestrian lying injured on the freeway who had been struck already by two cars around 11pm on Hwy 65. The driver parked his truck in front of the victim, then got behind his vehicle trying to alert oncoming traffic, but was soon struck himself.

Bystanders who respond quickly to a car accident at least have the right idea, given that treatment for a traumatic injury applied within the first hour has the best chance of preventing fatality. This period of time is known by emergency response teams as the “Golden Hour”.

Though most traumatic brain injury accidents are caused by falls, motor vehicle accident injury is the third leading cause of TBI-related death.

However, the majority of accident witnesses aren’t medically trained, and until 2009, there was good reason to be concerned about legal liability in California.

Are You Liable for Added Injuries?

California’s existing Good Samaritan law emerged from a 2007 Supreme Court decision on Van Horn v Watson. Van Horn was a passenger in a 45 mph crash into a light pole in Los Angeles, and her friend, Watson — fearing that Van Horn was in danger of a fire, or of the car “blowing up” — pulled her from the wreckage.

Van Horn claims she was permanently paralyzed with a spinal injury from the car accident, and submitted that she wasn’t in imminent danger, told Watson she didn’t want to be moved, and that Watson pulled her out of the car “like a rag-doll” by one arm.

In the 2008 trial, the defendant, Watson, won on the ground of immunity under HSC § 1799.102 (or, the most recent version of the California Good Samaritan statute). An appeals decision reversed the court opinion, and the subsequent Supreme Court (4 to 3 decision) as well agreed with the appellate, narrowly defining the situation which allows immunity protections (only) for those “rendering emergency care.”

In their decision, the court’s view was Watson hadn’t medically treated or assisted Van Horn in any way beyond removing her from the vehicle.

gavel representing california car accident case court decision

The decision drew an immediate backlash, and the next year, in 2009, the California statute was amended to include Chapter 77, which read “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.”

Part B of the law includes, “…while ensuring that those volunteers who provide care or assistance act responsible,” which still leaves open a (minuscule) possibility of liability due to a subjective view of “gross negligence, ill-will, bad-faith, or reckless behavior.”

California Good Samaritan Law Now More Inclusive

The first Good Samaritan law in the United States was passed in California in 1959, prompted by a growing number of medical malpractice suits.

There was concern that medically trained personnel were hesitant to render aid in an emergency and would rather fall back on the Common-law rule to avoid legal liability.

But several incidents occurred — one where several physicians, bystanders to a skier who had broken her leg, refused to care for the victim, fearing malpractice claims. The response was the 1959 California law that was specifically aimed at off-duty medical staff.

a car pulled off the road in the snow after a car acident

All 50 US states now have Good Samaritan laws, but the legal protections they offer vary significantly and, in the most extreme cases, narrow liability protection only to doctors, nurses, EMTs and other trained medical personnel.

Illinois’s statute is viewed by many as the “worst” for protecting average bystanders from being sued, while California is considered one of the most inclusive as of 2009, when the existing law was amended to clearly protect non-medically trained bystanders acting in good faith.

Studies Show Accident Victims Might Have Survived

The country of India is a colorful example of why Good Samaritan laws are needed. Indian streets are awash in all manner of technologies of transport, from horse carts to semi trucks, and includes a significant percentage of more vulnerable bicycles, scooters and motorcycles.

The crush of pedestrians, traffic, weak infrastructure — and a legal system that allows dangerous homemade vehicles to share the congested roads — results in average yearly car accident deaths of over 230,000 people.

road in india showing variety of transportation

Then in 2012, in a widely reported story, a 15 year old boy died after being struck by a vehicle. For nearly 45 minutes he pleaded for help, and although many people had paused, stopped or simply watched, nobody offered help. And this was typical. When police arrived, he had died.

In the same year, Savelife Foundation, a Bloomburg philanthropy, conducted a nationwide study in India and found that 75% were reluctant to help car accident victims, and that over 80% cited fears of legal liability and being drawn into the situation resulting in financial obligations.

scooter car and horse in india traffic

Their study also found evidence that possibly 50% of accident victims — or over a hundred thousand people a year — might have survived their injuries had they been given immediate care. But the Indian legal system is based on European standards and common-law, and it is widely believed that not getting involved keeps one safe from legal liability and hassle. Also present in India is a local/cultural/societal fear of police harassment.

As the stories of bystander inaction grew, in January 2017 India formally passed a Good Samaritan law which covers the most pervasive fears; crucially, the law’s aim is to encourage average, untrained bystanders to render aid to the best of their ability, and in some cases even offers rewards and reimbursements, such as for transporting victims.

Your Car Accident Response is Up to You

The United States — and most western countries — operate on a Common-law rule that bystanders do not have a “duty to rescue” car accident victims and (with a few exceptions) are not obligated to rescue or aid another person even if inaction seems unconscionable. But in California and in thirty-six other states, those who do choose to be Good Samaritans can be assured of legal protection after coming to another’s aid.

If you have further questions about the Good Samaritan law or other legal matters, don’t hesitate to contact Frank Penney Injury Lawyers.

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