Believe it or not, lifeguards are remarkably effective at preventing drownings.
We’re not kidding. The International Life Saving Federation, or ILS, estimates that lifeguards in its 120 “Member Federations” across the globe save 1,000,000 lives per year; according to the United States Lifesaving Association, whose lifeguards are ILS-certified, the chances of drowning at a beach on their watch is about 1 in 18 million, or 0.0000055 percent.
That’s because, well, lifeguards know what they’re doing. When they see someone struggling, they react instantly. Unfortunately, they’re not always where they need to be—and if that happens, you’d better hope that someone on the beach is a good swimmer.
Unfortunately, some good deeds don’t go unpunished. When someone acts quickly to save a life, they might find themselves facing a massive lawsuit.
In one Reddit thread, a user named Hobviously shared a harrowing experience of a rescue—followed by an intense and unnecessary legal battle. Hobviously was visiting a California beach when he noticed something happening offshore.
“I am a trained swimmer and [had] completed all classes to become a lifeguard,” they wrote. “However, swimming never was more than a hobby for me, and I chose a totally different career path.”
“In 2007, I saved a girl from drowning.”
“For those of you inexperienced with seashores and beaches, the sea will always push you back to the shore unless you are further than a given point,” Hobviously wrote. “After this given point, the strong current will either push you deeper into the sea or keep you where you are. You can’t just ‘float’ back to the shore; you will drown [due to] exhaustion.”
That’s important information for understanding the rest of this story.
“I was at the beach with a few friends when I noticed a girl way too far from the shore,” Hobviously wrote. “By ‘too far,’ I mean way too far: At least twice as far as any other person. Her gestures were clear: She was drowning, barely keeping her head above water. I turned around: no lifeguard. I later learned the man [who was the designated lifeguard] chose to take a break and was at the bathroom.”
He had to make a quick decision: Wait for the lifeguard, or rush out to try to save the woman. In the moment, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
“To make this clear: She was getting further and further from the shore by the second,” he wrote. “I’m a good swimmer. I raced to her, then carried her on my back to the shore, keeping her above water. She had already swallowed a lot of water. I risked my own life, because my weight with hers could have been too much. But I made it.”
Normally, this would be the end of the story. Of course, that wasn’t the case.
Incredibly, the rescued woman filed a lawsuit against her rescuer.
“The lady later sued me.”
That sounds fairly heartless, but Hobviously provided some context that makes the woman’s actions more understandable—although still reprehensible.
“Now, I learned later that she had to spend three days at the hospitals, couldn’t afford it, tried to sue the beach owners but her case was rejected, but she still sued me. Her case [was that] I should have saved her earlier. I had been careless, not carrying her to the shore fast enough, and should have let the lifeguard do his job (yes, you read that right). I had injured her, she was in pain, she wouldn’t have swallowed as much water, if that makes any sense, etc.”
The case didn’t get very far. Unfortunately, Hobviously had to bear his own legal costs.
“I had the case thrown out by a judge, but still had to hire a lawyer, and to suffer the humiliation. It was an unnecessary stress. I felt disgusted and betrayed. Amongst her charge was that I injured her while giving her CPR…as opposed to not giving her CPR, maybe?”
Later in the thread, Hobviously noted that their terminology was incorrect; the lady received rescue breaths, but not CPR.
“I mean, she stopped breathing,” they wrote. “I had to push air in her lungs; by doing so, the [carbon dioxide] concentration in her system increased and forced her to breathe again, spitting water.”
Rescue breathing, also known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, is standard first aid when a person isn’t able to breathe on their own. CPR is different; it involves chest compressions, which can (and usually do) cause injury.
In any case, Hobviously clearly saved the woman’s life. That, apparently, wasn’t enough.
The Reddit user’s act of good faith led to a lengthy—and expensive—legal battle.
Attorney rates typically vary from $150-500 per hour. When you’re facing a lawsuit, you’ve got to hire a lawyer—and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get any of that money back, even if you win the suit.
“I paid around $3,500, but I had to hire another lawyer,” Hobviously explained. “The first lawyer recommended me to accept a deal with the defendant, citing that legal fees alone would be more than the deal … She sued for $150,000, but [my] lawyer offered to settle for $20,000, which was her medical bill, her legal fee plus lost wages. I immediately refused and fired the lawyer. I had already given him an $800 deposit. He worked a grand total of three hours (maximum) on my case.”
Fortunately, the second attorney saw the case through. Hobviously spent months in court trying to get the case dismissed.
“[The lawsuit] took around three or four months to settle,” he wrote. “We filed a motion to dismiss, and it was granted.”
But couldn’t he countersue? Yes—but that could have added to his troubles.
“That’s the ultimate irony,” he wrote. “I could have sued her for a frivolous lawsuit for my legal fee, but, first, there was no guarantee I would win. Second, even if I won, there was no guarantee she would pay me. Third, if I lost, I would have even more legal fees to pay.”
The safest course of action was to simply pay the court costs and move on. That was a tough pill to swallow, but if he’d kept the case in court, he’d have had much bigger bills to pay, with no guarantee that he’d walk away with anything.
At this point, most readers are probably wondering: How is any of this legal? In some parts of the United States, it isn’t.
In recent years, many states have enacted “Good Samaritan” laws to prevent this type of situation.
In fact, all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) have passed legislation to give citizens some protection from frivolous lawsuits. Good Samaritan laws vary quite a bit, however, and they’re often restricted to emergency medical personnel, not untrained citizens. What’s more, California’s law has been weakened significantly in recent years. We dug into the California code to try to determine whether rescuers have legal recourse when they’re sued by their “victims.” Strap in, because the legal language gets fairly confusing.
There’s a section in the state’s Health and Safety code intended to protect rescuers from legal liability. At first glance, it seems like the language of the law protects people like Hobviously:
“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.”
That’s pretty straightforward, right? Hobviously is a “person,” we assume, and he acted in good faith to render care at the scene of an emergency. Case closed.
Well, not so fast. That section of the law only applies to emergency care—not non-emergency care. Saving the woman might qualify as emergency care; giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation might not, depending on the scenario. If she incurred an injury as a result of the rescue, she could still sue—which might explain why Hobviously’s first attorney wanted to settle the case and get it out of court as quickly as possible.
To make things more confusing, a 2008 California appellate court decision ruled that people can sue rescuers who attempt to provide emergency medical care if that care wasn’t actually provided at the scene of an emergency.
If you provide care outside of the “scene of an emergency,” you might be liable for damages.
So, what does that actually mean? In the 2008 case, a rescuer named Lisa Torti pulled a woman, Alexandra Van Horn, from a crashed vehicle; Torti said that she believed the vehicle would explode, so she had to act quickly in order to save Van Horn’s life. Unfortunately, Van Horn was paralyzed as a result of the rescue, and she sued Torti, arguing that Torti shouldn’t have attempted to move her.
The court ruled that moving Van Horn was an act of rescue, but not an act of “medical care” as defined by the Good Samaritan statute. The law, as written, specifically covers medical care, but not rescue care, so it didn’t apply in this circumstance. Torti was allowed to proceed with her lawsuit against her rescuer.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone; the case caused a public uproar and led to changes in the language of the law.
“There may be circumstances in which moving someone from their current location is a matter of medical exigency, such as where a carbon monoxide poisoning victim needs to be moved to a source of fresh air,” Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote in defending the decision. “We do not hold that the act of moving a person is never the rendition of emergency medical care, only that it was not in this case.”
To put that in layman’s terms, Torti wasn’t doing anything “medical” by dragging Van Horn away from the burning vehicle. She was acting on her belief that the car might explode, which wasn’t specifically medical in nature.
Yeah, we don’t really get it, either.
As a result of that decision—which we’re still struggling to understand—the California legislation rewrote the statute to include “non-medical care.” That should have fixed the problem, but as the case demonstrates, Good Samaritan laws often have imprecise wording that can lead to differences in interpretation.
When those differences allow for a lawsuit, victims will sometimes sue their rescuers, and that means that the rescuers face intense legal battles. Sure, they sometimes win—but that doesn’t really matter if they have to pay thousands of dollars and experience the tremendous stress that comes with a long court case.
That leads to an obvious problem: In some states, the safest course of action is to do nothing.
In Michigan, for instance, would-be rescuers can protect themselves from legal liability by refusing to help.
“Under common law liability provisions, you don’t have a responsibility to help anyone,” professor Lance Gable of Wayne State University Law School told Legal News. “There’s a general ‘no duty’ rule. If you see someone injured, you don’t have to help, even if you easily could. If you stood there and watched and did nothing, you wouldn’t be liable. That’s the common law rule, as calloused as it sounds.”
Michigan law protects emergency personnel who provide emergency care—they can’t be sued. Untrained civilians, however, don’t get the same protection.
“As far as I know, the [Michigan Good Samaritan] statute itself only covers medical personnel,” Gable said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that other individuals who respond are going to be subjected to extensive liability because they helped.”
Another example: In Illinois, the Good Samaritan statute applies only to “licensed medical professionals.” Furthermore, the law only applies to individuals who provide help “without fee.” That means that emergency room personnel—who are being paid for their time—could face lawsuits for saving lives.
Some states, however, have laws that require civilians to help.
Minnesota’s Good Samaritan law includes a “duty to assist,” which reads:
“A person at the scene of an emergency who knows that another person is exposed to or has suffered grave physical harm shall, to the extent that the person can do so without danger or peril to self or others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person. Reasonable assistance may include obtaining or attempting to obtain aid from law enforcement or medical personnel. A person who violates this subdivision is guilty of a petty misdemeanor.”
In other words, if you see someone drowning in Minnesota, you’re legally required to get them help. That might not mean rushing into the water yourself—but if you’re simply standing on the beach, gawking at the victim, you’re guilty of a crime.
We should also note that Minnesota provides more protection for rescuers than many other states; its law protects untrained rescuers from legal liabilities,” unless the person acts in a willful and wanton or reckless manner in providing the care, advice, or assistance.”
However, the same act notes that a rescuer might be liable for civil damages if they’re paid for their effort. That means that emergency personnel who accidentally cause an injury could face malpractice lawsuits, even if they’re acting in good faith to save a life. There’s also a lengthy section on the use of defibrillators (those things that use electric current to restore heart function during certain types of cardiac events), filled with plenty of legal lingo to identify exactly what “person” means in the context of the law.
If you’re not a legal savant, it’s enough to make your head spin. What should you do if you see someone in a perilous situation? Help, and expose yourself to potential liability, or sit back and hope that emergency medical personnel arrive on the scene?
We’d recommend checking out the laws in your own state (preferably before you’re actually faced with a life-or-death situation). If you’re struggling with that question, you might want to read Hobviously’s take on his unfortunate situation.
Despite his ordeal, Hobviously wrote that he didn’t regret saving the woman’s life.
“Let’s say I see the exact same girl drowning again,” he wrote. “What would I do? What would I honestly do?”
Given that he faced a long lawsuit and hefty legal bills, you might think that he’d stay on the shore. You’d be wrong.
“I’ve thought about it for [a long time],” he wrote. “She was suing me for $150,000, which is more than everything I have. She would have destroyed my life.”
“And I think I would save her again. Even if I know that, by saving her, I might get sued again.”
Ultimately, Hobviously believes he made the right decision. Sure, he faced a lawsuit, but he saved a life. Despite the woman’s apparent lack of gratitude, he knows he did something incredible; for him, sitting on the shore and waiting for the lifeguard to get back from the bathroom wasn’t an option.
That’s not to say that he wouldn’t change anything about his actions.
“However, this time, I would try not to give my name,” he wrote. “Just save her and run away. The worst [part] is, I gave my name to the emergency workers just in case they would later need my help or some information. Yeah.”
We’re certainly not saying that that’s the best course of action, but given this Good Samaritan horror story, it’s certainly understandable. After all, you never know who you’re saving—and whether or not they’ll be grateful for your efforts.