My Right to Watch You Die
An 87 year old woman lies on the ground, her life-force fading quickly. A woman identifying herself as a nurse holds a phone to her ear as a 9-1-1 dispatcher excitedly insists that CPR begin immediately or the dying woman will surely pass. The nurse refuses, claiming it is against her company’s policy to intervene.
“Is there a gardener … any staff? Anybody that doesn’t work for you, anywhere?” the dispatcher asks, according to the seven-minute call. “Can we flag someone down in the street and get them to help this lady? As a human being, I don’t, you know, is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”
“Um, not at this time.” This was the only response given by the unidentified nurse (now said to be a “Resident Services Director” and not an actual nurse) at Glenwood Gardens, an independent living apartment complex for the elderly, in Bakersfield, California.
The media went into a frenzy after this call became public, and there have been many questions as to whether the Glenwood employee would be found liable in the elderly woman’s death. The short answer is she won’t, the longer answer is she definitely won’t, but let’s take a closer look at the law that allows you to literally watch someone die.
Freedom is valued above all else in America. And while we may give up some of our freedoms on a pretty consistent basis for a plethora of poor reasons, (been to an airport recently?) we aren’t forced to actively help others, even those in dire need of help. See someone dying in the street? Well feel free to keep on walking, friend. The law is on your side.
This is because in nearly every state in the country (minus about a dozen with very specific exceptions) there is no duty to rescue, meaning there is no law forcing you to try and help someone in an emergency.
It’s not that we aren’t encouraged to help others. The majority of state legislatures have enacted “Good Samaritan” laws. These laws don’t require that you help someone in medical distress, but guarantee that if you do, you won’t be sued in case something goes wrong.
California Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102 states that no person, professional or otherwise, will be “liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission” when offering assistance during an emergency, unless the aid was given in a grossly negligent manner. (Like setting someone on fire to warm her up because she has hypothermia.)
This law was amended in 2009 to include not only “medical” help, but all help offered during an emergency. The change came after Van Horn v. Watson, when the California Supreme Court upheld a decision finding a woman liable for damages she caused her friend as the result of an attempted rescue. The two women had been involved in a car accident and, fearing the car would explode, Lisa Torti pulled Alexandera Van Horn out of the wreckage in a manner which rendered Ms. Van Horn a paraplegic.
The amendment makes clear that the statute protects everyone trying to help in emergencies, not just medical professionals: “It is the intent of the Legislature to encourage other individuals to volunteer, without compensation, to assist others in need during an emergency.”
When the 87 year old woman was dying at Glenwood Gardens, the employee didn’t attempt CPR. She just sat there.
But, from the facts as we understand them today, she was not a registered nurse. She was not hired to care for the medical needs of the Glenwood residents.
And just sitting there was perfectly within her legal rights.