California schemin’

Lisa Torti and her former friend Alexandra Van Horn worked together at a San Fernando Valley department store in 2004. They and three co-workers went out to a bar on Halloween for a night of drinking and dancing, departing at 1:30 the following morning in two cars.

Ms. Van Horn was a front-seat passenger in the first vehicle, piloted by Anthony Glen Watson. Ms. Torti rode in the second car. After Mr. Watson’s car crashed into a light pole while going 45 mph on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, Ms. Torti and her companion pulled over and rushed to help Mr. Watson’s passengers escape the wreckage.

Ms. Torti testifies she saw smoke and liquid coming from the crashed car. Anxious to get Ms. Van Horn out of the car before it exploded, Ms. Torti grabbed the arm of her fellow department store cosmetician and pulled her from the vehicle.

Ms. Van Horn, who suffered permanent damage to her spinal cord in the accident and is now a paraplegic, sued Mr. Watson, of course. But she also sued her former friend Ms. Torti, asserting Ms. Torti worsened her injury by grabbing her arm and yanking her out of the car “like a rag doll.”

There’s friendship, it seems, and then there’s lawyers.

Ms. Van Horn’s lawsuit against Ms. Torti was summarily dismissed in Los Angeles County Superior Court because — surprisingly enough — it turns out California has a sensible law that would appear to cover such cases. In 1980, the Legislature enacted a Health and Safety Code which provides that, “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from an act or omission.”

The plaintiff appealed. The case went to the California Supreme Court. And Thursday, California’s highest court ruled Ms. Van Horn can indeed sue her former friend Ms. Torti, because the law — surprise! — doesn’t mean what it appears to mean to us non-lawyers, at all.

Because the Legislature placed said statute in the section of the state code dealing with emergency medical care, even though the statute doesn’t include the adjective “medical,” the lawmakers actually meant such protection from lawsuits to apply only to medical personnel doing medical stuff — not to non-professionals such as Ms. Torti — the sharply divided Sacramento high court ruled.

Now, some will hold that anyone should have access to the courts to sue anyone for anything. In a “loser pays” regime — where there would be real costs to bringing an action not likely to prevail before a jury — that position might be easier to defend. As it is, however, most such cases settle, with the only “loser” supposedly being an insurance company, which spreads the vast costs of litigation and settlement among all policy-holders.

It can also be noted that moving someone who may have a spinal injury is unwise; some might hold a jury might best determine whether Ms. Torti showed the judgment expected of a reasonable person when she weighed that risk against the risk that the vehicle might explode.

And all might wish to see the injured Ms. Van Horn get enough money to cover her medical expenses.

In the real world, however, the lawyers will be looking for a “pain and suffering” award far exceeding costs — and even arguing that Ms. Torti, now a 30-year-old Las Vegas interior designer, prevented Ms. Van Horn from realizing her dream of becoming a Hollywood makeup woman.

More importantly, such rulings make it far less likely that anyone in California — medical professional or not — is going to take the chance to stop and aid an accident victim in distress.

Writing for the three dissenting judges, Justice Marvin R. Baxter called the ruling “illogical” because it recognizes immunity for nonprofessionals administering medical care while denying it for potentially life-saving actions like pulling a drowning person from the water.

Under this hair-splitting and highly creative decision, “One who dives into swirling waters to retrieve a drowning swimmer can be sued for incidental injury he or she causes while bringing the victim to shore, but is immune for harm he or she produces while thereafter trying to revive the victim,” Justice Baxter writes. “Here, the result is that defendant Torti has no immunity for her bravery in pulling her injured friend from a crashed vehicle, even if she reasonably believed it might be about to explode.”

Once again, the lawyers in the black robes have restored the “open season” for their cohorts and accomplices of the trial bar. As in the death of a thousand cuts, once again it’s been made just a little more expensive — and a little weirder and more dangerous — to live in California.

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