Law Review: County liable for not conducting search and rescue
Under the “Good Samaritan” rule, a person who has not created a peril has no duty to come to the aid of another, but if they do attempt to aid the victim, they can be found liable only if they make the situation worse or are grossly negligent.
Also, more to the point today, a rescuer can be found responsible if he or she induces reliance such that other rescuers do not come forward.
Our case today involves Riverside County Sheriff’s Office’s unfortunate failure to properly manage a search and rescue.
Andres Marin-Arista decided to ride his bicycle to the summit of Santiago Peak in the Cleveland National Forest. He summited but had a fall on the way down and called his wife saying he had crashed and was injured. He said he was just below Santiago Peak.
Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies had Verizon ping the victim’s cell phone which revealed his location near Santiago Peak.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Lt. Zachary Hall, who wins the Jackass of the Year award, was named Incident Commander. Hall was not trained in search and rescue and opined that the victim was likely having an affair and was with his girlfriend — totally untrue, and questioned why law enforcement was involved. Hall went on to say the victim was “a grown man … he can survive the night.”
The sheriff’s department had all-terrain search vehicles which Hall did not know about and did not dispatch, ultimately saying the search would start in the morning.
Pat Killam, a member of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, a group of volunteer deputies trained to respond to wilderness emergencies, was awakened early in the morning by another rescue unit member and took off in the dark on his motorcycle. He located Marin-Arista’s body just below Santiago Peak. The victim had died of hypothermia.
Marin-Arista’s family sued the County noting the sheriff’s department had said it “would handle the search” and had asked Marin-Arista’s wife not to initiate a search. The lawsuit claimed that as such, the County assumed responsibility for searching for the victim, inducing the family to rely on the County.
The lawsuit pointed out that Hall did not check the elevation of Santiago Peak, nor did he check the temperature to assess the danger of hypothermia. Hall was totally unaware of the County’s resources available for search and rescue.
While as a general rule, the courts try not to impose liability on rescuers and police departments doing rescues, this 4th District Court of Appeal found that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department had let it be known it was taking control of the rescue, yet it did so in a woefully inadequate manner.
‘WE’VE GOT IT HANDLED’
By telling the family “we’ve got it handled,” the County induced the family and others not to initiate their own rescue efforts.
Riverside County’s demurrer was overturned — opening the door to liability for wrongful death, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. We can only hope Incident Commander Hall has been demoted or fired.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.