Case of the Day – Thursday, February 8, 2018

THE GOOD (BUT NEGLIGENT) SAMARITAN

One of the most popular parables that the New Testament reports Jesus told was in answer to a disciple’s question, “But who is my brother?” The tale of the Good Samaritan (and mind you, the Samaritans and Jews mixed like Patriots fans and Eagles boosters at last weekend’s featured event), who found a Jewish man beaten by robbers and left for dead is taught to countless Sunday School students, and has even entered the lexicon. Many states have what are known as “Good Samaritan” statutes, laws that prevent a rescuer who has voluntarily helped a victim in distress from being successfully sued for wrongdoing.

Some states have gone further, passing “duty to assist” laws that require people to assist crime victims or those in distress where special circumstances are present.

In today’s case, a woman checked into a hotel. Her husband spoke to her by phone several times during the early evening, but then was unable to reach her by cellphone or room phone. He finally called the hotel, and the front desk agreed to send a maintenance worker to check on her. Alas, the maintenance man was unskilled at this kind of welfare check. He opened the room door, saw the room was dark, called out, got no answer, and concluded no one was there. When husband drove some distance to the hotel and entered the room hours later, he found his wife on the floor, having suffered a brain aneurysm. Quicker treatment would have led to a much easier and better recovery.

What happens when a person has no legal duty to come to the aid of another, but does so anyway? Does the existence of a duty matter? The trial court thought it did, and threw out Mrs. O’Malley’s claim. The appellate court, however, found that duty did not matter as much as voluntariness.

O’Malley v. Hospitality Staffing Solutions, Case No. G054724 (Ct.App. California, Jan. 31, 2018) 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 83. A woman checked into a hotel room in the early evening. She did not answer her husband’s calls for several hours. He suspected that she may have been injured. The husband called the hotel, and the front desk sent maintenance worker Ramos to check the room. Ramos reported that no one was there. Hours later, the husband went to the hotel room and found his wife lying on the floor. She had suffered a brain aneurism. 

The couple sued the hotel and Ramos’ employer (a staffing agency) for negligence. The agency filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it owed no legal duty to the married couple. The trial court granted the motion and the couple appealed (the hotel itself was not a party to the appeal).

Held: The case could proceed to trial. The Court of Appeals held that maintenance worker Ramos’argument that he had no duty to Mrs. O’Malley that would require him to check the room was correct but irrelevant. The general rule is that a person who has not created a peril is not liable for failing to take action to protect another unless the person has some relationship that gives rise to a duty to act. However, one who undertakes to aid another is under a duty to exercise due care in acting and is liable if the failure to do so increases the risk of harm or if the harm is suffered because the other relied on the undertaking.

For Mrs. O’Malley to make a claim of “negligent undertaking,” she had to show that: (1) the maintenance man agreed to render services to her; (2) the services rendered were of a kind he should have recognized as necessary for her protection; (3) he failed to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his undertaking; (4) his failure to exercise reasonable care resulted in harm to Mrs. O’Malley; and (5) his carelessness increased the risk of harm.

While under negligence, a legal duty of care gives rise to an obligation to act, under the negligent undertaking theory, acting where not obligated to act gives rise to a legal duty. Here, the court said, there were disputed facts regarding precisely what maintenance worker Ramos may have undertaken to do. The clerk at the front desksaid that she told Ramos “to knock on Mrs. O’Malley’s room . . . and if she did not answer the door, to open the door and look in and see if she was in there.” Ramos said the clerk had told him simply to “to go check on her, to go to her room and see if she’s there.”

Those conversations, and Ramos’ knowledge that Mrs. O’s husband was worried she might be injured or sick, were enough to permit the inference that Ramos may have been understood the apparent urgency of the situation. The risk that Mrs. O’Malley may have been lying incapacitated somewhere in the hotel room (beyond the threshold of the front door) may have been reasonably foreseeable. “Therefore,” the appellate court said, “the scope of Ramos’ duty may have been more than simply opening the door and peering inside what Ramos claimed was a dark room.”

The appellate court said that “a reasonable trier of fact might infer that Ramos assumed a duty to check on whether Mrs. O’Malley was in her hotel room, and if she was there, why she was not answering the phone. If Ramos had such a duty, the scope of his duty would depend on the nature of the harm that was foreseeable. That question must be resolved at trial.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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