(CN) - Insurers may have to contribute to a $4 million settlement of negligence claims against a Good Samaritan who pulled an injured woman from a car wreck, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Finding that California's insurance code clearly includes the "unloading" of a vehicle within the definition of its "use," the federal appeals court in Pasadena added a new chapter to the long legal saga of would-be Good Samaritan Lisa Torti.
It all began when Torti and Alexandra Van Horn went out to the bar with Anthony Watson, Dion Ofoegbu and others on Halloween night 2004. According to a California Supreme Court decision, the group was headed home in two separate cars around 1:30 a.m. when Watson, who was driving with Van Horn as passenger, slammed into a light pole at about 45 mph. Ofoegbu, driving the second car with Torti sitting beside him, pulled up to scene and Torti jumped out to help. Fearing the crashed car would blow up, Torti pulled Van Horn from the wreckage.
Van Horn suffered an injury to her vertebrae and ended up paralyzed. She later sued Torti in state court, alleging Torti had pulled her out of the vehicle "like a rag doll" instead of waiting for paramedics to arrive, thus causing her paraplegia.
Torti claimed immunity under the state's so-called Good Samaritan law, testifying that she thought that, although others disputed this, a fire or explosion was imminent because she had seen "smoke and liquid" coming from the vehicle. The California Supreme Court ultimately affirmed that the statute referred only to emergency medical care.
Torti had two different insurance policies at the time, one through Encompass Insurance Co. and another through Mid-Century Insurance Co. The Mid-Century policy covered Torti's use of someone else's car, as long as she had permission from the owner. Watson's policy, which covered any person who used his vehicle, was with Coast National Insurance Co.
Encompass agreed to defend Torti against the lawsuit, but Mid-Century declined, saying that Torti hadn't technically "used" the vehicle when she removed Van Horn from Watson's car. Coast National rejected her claim for similar reasons.
After settling Van Horn's action against Torti for $4 million, Encompass sued Mid-Century and Coast National for their alleged shares of the award.
Agreeing that pulling an injured person from a vehicle did not amount to "use" of that vehicle, U.S. District Judge George King ruled for the defendant insurance companies in Los Angeles.
An appellate panel reversed 2-1 on Wednesday, finding that the relevant text of the California Insurance Code "makes clear that 'unloading' a motor vehicle constitutes 'use' of that motor vehicle."
The panel sent the case back to Los Angeles, noting that the lower court had not yet considered whether Torti had permission to "use" the vehicle in question.
Writing in dissent, Judge Michael Murphy, who sat on the panel by designation from the 10th Circuit, argued for a reading of the code "in concert" with the dictionary definition of "use."
Such a reading "supports the conclusion that the unloading of a vehicle constitutes use of the vehicle only when the unloading is part of the user's act of availing herself of the vehicle," he wrote. "Thus, while loading or unloading a vehicle may
constitute a use of the vehicle, it must be a component of some broader employment of the vehicle." (Emphasis in original.)
The California Supreme Court's ruling
in the case against Torti spurred the state Legislature in 2009 to alter the Good Samaritan law somewhat.
That law states, in part, that "no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission."
Encompass' attorney Scott Vida, of Vida & Fisher in Los Angeles, said that the present ruling "represents a slight broadening of the concept of 'use', to the extent the law might previously have been interpreted to require a greater connection between the user and the vehicle."
"The ruling is a clarification of existing California law in its holding that 'use' of an auto includes unloading a vehicle, even when the user avails itself of the vehicle in no other way," Vida said in an email.
Limor Lehavi, of Archer Norris in Newport Beach, Calif., represented the defendants. She did not immediately return a request for comment.