How Good Samaritan Laws Work

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished?

Good Samaritan woodcut Good Samaritan woodcut
This woodcut engraving depicts the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German painter, 1794 - 1872). ZU_09/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 finally passed a national Good Samaritan law in 2017 that protects people who try to help others they believe to be injured, ill or otherwise incapacitated, ensuring they won't be held civilly liable if the person ends up harmed in some way from their actions. Critics have both complained that the law is too broad (shielding people from things they should not really be attempting) and that it doesn't address the issue of injured people trying to scam Good Samaritans, which was what made people reluctant to help in the first place [source: Tan].