Woman Sued for Rescue Effort in Car Crash

California high court rules Good Samaritans can be liable.

December 19, 2008, 4:09 PM

Dec. 19, 2008 — -- No good deed goes unpunished, or so goes the saying.

Such was the case with Lisa Torti, who is being sued for pulling a now-paralyzed friend from the wreckage of a Los Angeles car accident in 2004.

The victim's lawyers claim the Good Samaritan bumbled the rescue and caused injury by yanking her friend "like a rag doll" to safety.

But Torti -- now a 30-year-old interior designer from Las Vegas -- said she thought she had seen smoke and feared the car would explode. She claims she was only trying to help her friend, Alexandra Van Horn, and her own life has been adversely affected by the incident.

"I know [Van Horn] has a lot of financial issues and her life has changed," she said. "But it's not my fault. I can't be angry at her, only the path she has chosen to take. I can only pray it helps her."

"I don't have any more fight left," Torti told ABCNews.com, choking back tears. "It's really emotional."

The California Supreme Court ruled this week that Van Horn may sue Torti for allegedly causing her friend's paralysis. The case -- the first of its kind -- challenges the state's liability shield law that protects people who give emergency assistance.

The court ruled 4-3 that only those administering medical care have legal immunity, but not those like Torti, who merely take rescue action. The justices said that the perceived danger to Van Horn in the wrecked car was not "medical."

The court majority said the 1980 Emergency Medical Service Act, which Torti's lawyers cited for protection, was intended only to encourage people to learn first aid and use it in emergencies, not to give Good Samaritans blanket immunity when they act negligently.

Van Horn's lawsuit will go on to trial court to determine if Torti is to blame for Van Horn's paralysis.

But some legal experts say the ruling may discourage people from trying to save lives.

"What they are saying is that if you pull someone out of a pool, if you provide CPR, you do have a defense," said Torti's lawyer, Jody Steinberg.

"It seems to defy logic," he said. "At a certain point anyone who instructs or educates [in emergencies] will advise that you must hesitate. Those split-second decisions will be gone and someone could die."

Emergency Trainers Worry

The Boy Scouts of America, which offers emergency training to youth, filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case.

But Van Horn's lawyers said their argument is "nonsense."

At the time of the accident, Torti and Van Horn, both make-up artists, were acquaintances at work. They had been drinking with a group of friends and left a bar in suburban Chatsworth after a Halloween party, according to court papers.

The car in which Van Horn and another passenger were riding spun out of control and hit a telephone pole. Torti said she was a passenger in another car that was following them. Before emergency crews arrived, she allegedly offered to help Van Horn from the wreckage.

"There could be so many things that could happen and I obviously wanted to get her out of the car," said Torti. "She said she couldn't move. I did the best thing I could to move her from the situation and get her out of danger to a place that was a little safer."

Torti said she put one arm under the victim's legs and one behind her back, carrying her out of the car. But Van Horn testified that her friend grabbed her by the arm and pulled her from the car "like a rag doll," allegedly causing injury to a vertebrae and a lacerated liver.

Court documents showed that the question of whether she was paralyzed during the crash or when she was pulled out of the car is in dispute.

"She said she couldn't move out of the car," said Torti. "They exaggerated it. I would never drag someone out of anything or pull someone out like a rag doll."

But Van Horn's lawyer, Robert Hutchinson, told ABCNews.com that witnesses said there was never any danger of an explosion, and both the driver and a backseat passenger were still in the car when Torti took Van Horn from the vehicle.

"[Van Horn] got her seat belt off and was stunned," said Hutchinson. "She couldn't open the door and without being asked Ms. Torti grabbed and pulled her out of the car. It was her belief that the car was about to explode."

Hutchinson argues that despite her belief that there had been an explosion, Torti pulled the victim at an angle and dumped her on a hard median next to the car, allegedly injuring Van Horn's spine.

Victim 'Ruined for Life'

"We all know that anyone suspected of a spinal injury should not be moved," he said. "She was not bleeding and was conscious. If the car had been on fire, why didn't she carry her 50 yards away?"

Van Horn was taken to the hospital where she underwent surgery. Now 26, she has returned to her home in Minneapolis and is confined to a wheelchair. "She is ruined for life," said Hutchinson.

But Torti said her life, too, has also been changed forever, "jolting" her relationship with her parents, whose homeowner's insurance will end up paying if she loses the case.

Peter Keane, a dean emeritus and professor of law at Golden Gate Law School, said the impact of the court ruling will "be a bad one" and have repercussions in about a dozen other states that have Good Samaritan laws.

He said the ruling will force ordinary people to be "reflective" before coming to the aid of a person in an emergency.

"It's much too literal an interpretation of the immunity law for Good Samaritans," he told ABCNews.com. "Now it puts the onus on the lay person in an emergency situation to try to figure out the nuances of what medical care means, something that could subject them to liability later on."

Meanwhile, Torti said she feels betrayed by a former colleague and is now shy about helping others.

"I am really shocked it turned out the way it did," said Torti.

"How do you explain what you feel when someone you help is going after your money?" she said. "I am really sad because I have always known how to help people and now I always second guess myself. You want to make sure you do the right thing, but you're scared. The world turns us into robots that don't care."

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