How Good Samaritan Laws Work

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished?
Dutch painter Pieter Lastman depicted the Biblical Good Samaritan in the 1600s. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

One of the often-cited stories illustrating the various nuances of Good Samaritan laws is that of Lisa Torti and Alexandra Van Horn. In 2004, the two L.A.-area co-workers were headed home from a party as passengers in separate cars when Van Horn's car crashed. Torti allegedly thought she saw smoke and liquid coming from Van Horn's car and, fearing an explosion, pulled her colleague from the vehicle. Afterward, Van Horn was paralyzed [source: James]. But was it the result of the accident or Torti's actions?

Van Horn sued Torti, claiming the car was not emitting smoke or in danger of exploding, so Torti had no business pulling her from the vehicle. She also alleged Torti yanked her from it "like a rag doll." Torti argued Van Horn couldn't sue her due to provisions in the state's Good Samaritan law. But in the first such case of its kind at the time, the California Supreme Court ruled that Van Horn could, indeed, sue Torti because Good Samaritan protection was only for those administering medical care, not for people simply rescuing another [source: Courthouse News]. Because of this ruling, the California state legislature modified its Good Samaritan law the following year to provide liability protection to people administering nonmedical care [source: American Tort Reform Association].

And then there was the Peng Yu episode in China. In 2006, an aged woman fell as she was trying to board a city bus, breaking a hip. A bystander, Peng Yu, came to her aid, helping her to a hospital. But later on, with mounting medical bills, the woman and her family sued Peng Yu, claiming he had caused her to fall. Although the woman had no evidence to back up this assertion, the judge ruled in her favor, deciding that Peng Yu must have been motivated to help the woman because he had caused the accident, as no one would help another just to be kind. After this ruling, many injured Chinese people began suing those who tried to help them, and innocent rescuers often were found guilty. Consequently, people stopped offering assistance to those in need. It wasn't until an injured child was left to die that the city of Shenzhen passed China's first Good Samaritan law in 2013 [sources: Lee, Martinsen].

China does not have a national Good Samaritan law in place, nor is there a proposed law under discussion. So, some local governments are drafting resolutions to help protect those offering assistance. And Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba unveiled a new form of insurance that covers legal fees up to $3,100 for those sued under Good Samaritan circumstances [source: Kaiman].

These examples show how an issue that seems pretty clear-cut — helping someone in need — can actually be quite complicated.

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