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Horn v. Watson

December 18, 2008

ALEXANDRA VAN HORN, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
ANTHONY GLEN WATSON ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS;
ANTHONY GLEN WATSON, CROSS-COMPLAINANT AND APPELLANT,
v.
LISA TORTI, CROSS-DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



Ct.App. 2/3 B188076 & 2/3 B189254, Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. 034945. Judge: Howard J. Schwab.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Moreno, J.

Under well-established common law principles, a person has no duty to come to the aid of another. (Artiglio v. Corning, Inc. (1998) 18 Cal.4th 604, 613; Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal.3d 18, 23.) If, however, a person elects to come to someone's aid, he or she has a duty to exercise due care.

(Williams, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 23.) Thus, a "good Samaritan" who attempts to help someone might be liable if he or she does not exercise due care and ends up causing harm. (Ibid.) The Legislature has enacted certain statutory exceptions to this due care requirement. One such statute, Health and Safety Code section 1799.102, immunizes any "person who . . . renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency . . . " from liability for civil damages.*fn1

In this case, defendant Lisa Torti removed plaintiff Alexandra Van Horn from a vehicle involved in an accident and, by so doing, allegedly caused Van Horn to become paralyzed. In the resultant suit for negligence, Torti argued that she had provided "emergency care at the scene of an emergency" and was immune under section 1799.102. The trial court agreed and granted her motion for summary judgment, but the Court of Appeal reversed. We granted review to determine the scope of section 1799.102. We hold that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to immunize from liability for civil damages any person who renders emergency medical care. Torti does not contend that she rendered emergency medical care and she may not, therefore, claim the immunity in section 1799.102. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

I. BACKGROUND

During the evening of October 31, 2004, plaintiff, Torti, and Jonelle Freed were relaxing at Torti's home where plaintiff and Torti both smoked some marijuana.*fn2 After defendants Anthony Glen Watson and Dion Ofoegbu arrived, they all went to a bar at around 10:00 p.m., where they consumed several drinks. They remained at the bar until about 1:30 a.m., at which point they left.

Plaintiff and Freed rode in a vehicle driven by Watson; Torti rode in a vehicle driven by Ofoegbu. Watson lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a curb and light pole at about 45 miles per hour, knocking a light pole over and causing the vehicle's front air bags to deploy. Plaintiff was in the front passenger seat. When Watson's vehicle crashed, Ofoegbu pulled off to the side of the road and he and Torti got out to help. Torti removed plaintiff from Watson's vehicle. Watson was able to exit his vehicle by himself and Ofoegbu assisted Freed by opening a door for her.

There are conflicting recollections about several critical events: Torti testified at deposition that she saw smoke and liquid coming from Watson's vehicle, and she removed plaintiff from the vehicle because she feared the vehicle would catch fire or "blow up." Torti also testified that she removed plaintiff from the vehicle by placing one arm under plaintiff's legs and the other behind plaintiff's back to lift her out. Others testified, on the other hand, that there was no smoke or any other indications that the vehicle might explode and that Torti put plaintiff down immediately next to the car. Plaintiff testified that Torti pulled her from the vehicle by grabbing her by the arm and yanking her out "like a rag doll."

Emergency personnel arrived moments later and plaintiff and Freed were treated and transported to the hospital. Plaintiff suffered various injuries, including injury to her vertebrae and a lacerated liver that required surgery, and was permanently paralyzed.

Plaintiff sued Watson, Ofoegbu, and Torti. Plaintiff asserted a negligence cause of action against Torti, alleging that even though plaintiff was not in need of assistance from Torti after the accident and had only sustained injury to her vertebrae, Torti dragged plaintiff out of the vehicle, causing permanent damage to her spinal cord and rendering her a paraplegic. Torti and Watson cross-complained against each other for declaratory relief and indemnity. After some discovery, Torti moved for summary judgment, arguing that she was immune under section 1799.102. The trial court granted Torti's motion.*fn3

The Court of Appeal reversed. It held that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to apply only to the rendering of emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency and that Torti did not, as a matter of law, render such care.*fn4 Such a construction, the Court of Appeal explained, is consistent with the statutory scheme of which section 1799.102 is a part. We granted review.

II. DISCUSSION

Our primary duty when interpreting a statute is to " 'determine and effectuate' " the Legislature's intent.*fn5 (Lennane v. Franchise Tax Board (1994) 9 Cal.4th 263, 268.) To that end, our first task is to examine the words of the statute, giving them a commonsense meaning. (People v. Nguyen (2000) 22 Cal.4th 872, 878.) If the language is clear and unambiguous, the inquiry ends.

(Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094, 1103.) However, a statute's language must be construed in context, and provisions relating to the same subject matter must be harmonized to the extent possible. (Dyna-Med, Inc. v. Fair Employment & Housing Com. (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1379, 1387.) With these principles of statutory construction in mind, we turn to the language of the provision.

Section 1799.102 provides, "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 any act or omission. The scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered." The parties identify two possible constructions of this provision: Torti urges us to conclude that it broadly applies to both non-medical and medical care rendered at the scene of any emergency; plaintiff, on the other hand, argues that section 1799.102 applies only to the rendering of emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency. While section 1799.102 is certainly susceptible of Torti's plain language interpretation, a "[l]iteral construction should not prevail if it is contrary to the legislative intent apparent in the statute. The intent prevails over the letter, and the letter will, if possible, be so read as to conform to the spirit of the act." (Lungren v. Deukmejian (1988) 45 Cal.3d 727, 735.) We conclude for several reasons that, when the statutory language is viewed in context, the narrower construction identified by plaintiff is more consistent with the statutory scheme of which section 1799.102 is a part.

A. The Statutory Scheme and Related Provisions

1. Purpose of the Scheme in Which Section 1799.102

Is Located Section 1799.102 is located in division 2.5 of the Health and Safety Code. That division, titled "Emergency Medical Services" by the Legislature, was enacted as the Emergency Medical Services System and the Prehospital Emergency Medical Care Personnel Act (Act). (§ 1797; Stats. 1980, ch. 1260, § 7, p. 4261.) One can infer from the location of section 1799.102 in the Emergency Medical Services division, as well as from the title of the act of which it is a part, that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to immunize the provision of emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency. (People v. Hull (1991) 1 Cal.4th 266, 272.)*fn6

Additionally, apart from the name of the division and the Act, the Legislature made clear in numerous other statutes that it intended for the statutory scheme to address the provision of emergency medical care. For example, in section 1797.1, the Legislature declared that it is the intent of the Act "to provide the state with a statewide system for emergency medical services . . . ." (Italics added.) In section 1797.6, subdivision (a), the Legislature declared that it is "the policy of the State of California to ensure the provision of effective and efficient emergency medical care." (Italics added.) Indeed, nowhere in the Act's general provisions (Health & Saf. Code, div. 2.5, ch. 1, §§ 1797-1797.8) is there any indication that the Legislature intended to address or affect the provision of non-medical care.

Section 1797.5 is even more illuminating. That statute explains that "It is the intent of the Legislature to promote the development, accessibility, and provision of emergency medical services to the people of the State of California. [¶] Further, it is the policy of the State of California that people shall be encouraged and trained to assist others at the scene of a medical emergency. Local governments, agencies, and other organizations shall be encouraged to offer training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and lifesaving first aid techniques so that people may be adequately trained, prepared, and encouraged to assist others immediately." (Italics added.) Section 1797.5 thus establishes that the Legislature intended to encourage people to learn and provide emergency medical care (such as the cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid specifically identified in section 1797.5) to those in need. The Act's stated purpose supports construing section 1799.102 to immunize only those who render such emergency medicalcare at the scene of a medical emergency.

Construing section 1799.102 to apply only to the rendering of emergency medical care is also in keeping with adjoining section 1799.100 (there is no section 1799.101), another immunity provision. Section 1799.100 provides: "In order to encourage local agencies and other organizations to train people in emergency medical services, no local agency, entity of state or local government, or other public or private organization which sponsors, authorizes, supports, finances, or supervises the training of people, or certifies those people . . . shall be liable for any civil damages alleged to result from those training programs." Read together, sections 1799.100 and 1799.102 first immunize those who train persons in emergency medical care and then immunize the persons who actually render such care. The strong inference to be drawn is that the Legislature intended for both statutes to apply to emergency medical care. (Dyna-Med, Inc. v. Fair Employment & Housing Com., supra, 43 Cal.3d at p. 1387 [explaining that courts should harmonize statutes related to the same subject].)

2. Definition of "Emergency" in Section 1797.70 Chapter 2 of division 2.5, Emergency

Medical Services, contains definitions which govern the provisions of the division. (§ 1797.50; see §§ 1797.52-1797.97.) Of particular relevance is section 1797.70, which defines "emergency" as meaning "a condition or situation in which an individual has a need for immediate medical attention, or where the potential for such need is perceived by emergency personnel or a public safety agency." (Italics added.) Section 1799.102, the provision at issue here, immunizes persons who render "emergency care at the scene of an emergency . . . ." (Italics added.) Section 1797.70 thus makes clear that the phrase "scene of an emergency" in section 1799.102 refers to the scene of a medical emergency.*fn7

Although the phrase "emergency care" is not separately defined, section 1797.70's definition of "emergency" certainly supports the conclusion that the Legislature intended for "emergency care" to be construed as meaning emergency medical care. After all, if the "scene of an emergency" (§ 1799.102) means a scene where "an individual has a need for immediate medical attention" (§ 1797.70, italics added), it logically follows that the Legislature intended for the phrase "emergency care" in section 1799.102 to refer to the medical attention given to the individual who needs it.

This construction also comports with the second sentence of section 1799.102, which reads: "The scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered." While this sentence does not directly shed light on the intended meaning of the phrase "emergency care" in the previous sentence of section 1799.102, the fact that the Legislature excluded "emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered" from section 1799.102's immunity supports construing "emergency care" as meaning emergency medical care - the exclusion suggests that "emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered" are locations ...


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