The father sat silently in the emergency room. His face was puffed from weeping and shattered by grief. His hands clutched a Christmas present for his wonderful son.
Next to him sat a California Highway Patrol officer, holding his head in his hands. The trooper was overcome by grief, too. For, he had just told the father that his entire family had died in a rural car wreck.
That wasn't what was laying the trooper so low today, though. He'd seen too many fatal car wrecks in his years on the job to count anymore.
No, the trooper had been overwhelmed by the fact that he'd just had to tell this father that many people had witnessed the car wreck, had the opportunity to save his family...but hadn't, because they feared getting sued for their troubles.
From The LA Times, December 19th, story by Carol J. Williams. (Sorry, I can't get the HTML tags to work).
The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a young woman who pulled a co-worker from a crashed vehicle isn't immune from civil liability because the care she rendered wasn't medical.
The divided high court appeared to signal that rescue efforts are the responsibility of trained professionals. It was also thought to be the first ruling by the court that someone who intervened in an accident in good faith could be sued.
You see sir, the trooper had explained, the folks who live around that part of the road where your family's car flipped over are either poor, or they're farmers. They either don't have money, or they're leveraged to the hilt. They can't risk being sued.
The father stared blankly back at him.
The trooper explained that, when the neighbors heard the crash, many came running. They saw smoke coming from the vehicle, and they heard your wife and son crying for help.
The neighbors threw as much sand as they could on the smoking parts of the car, but that's all they could do. There were no fire hydrants nearby.
They called every police, fire and EMT element within fifty miles. But, most of us were out on calls, and the rest of us were so far away that it took us quite a while to get there.
You see sir, said the trooper, under the state Supreme Court's interpretation of California's Good Samaritan Law, we're covered legally if we conduct a rescue. We're trained to exercise due diligence when we rescue people. Regular citizens are not.
But, asked the father, what if regular citizens are the only ones around to rescue someone. What does the state Supreme Court say about that?
The trooper had no answer to that question. Instead, he finished explaining that, when the car finally caught fire, it didn't explode at first. The fire spread slowly.
Everyone threw dirt, sand, anything they though to be fire retardant on the spreading flames. They called the police and fire departments and EMTs again and again and again.
One of the young boys in the crowd couldn't stand it any longer. He grabbed an axe and started towrad the car. He obviously meant to break the windows, reach inside, and try to pull the man's family to safety. Some of the adults grabbed the boy and dragged him back into the crowd.
The car finally exploded, as the sirens of the fire department from the nearby country could just be heard in the distance.
The father looked at the trooper. "Do you have a son, trooper," he asked.
"Yes sir, I do."
"Is he a fine young boy?"
"Yes sir. He's wonderful. I'm blessed."
"So was I. Here, give him this."
The father handed the trooper the wrapped gift. He stood up, wiped his eyes, and walked away into the Christmas night, to start rebuilding his life.
Hat tip to Captain Ed