Good Samaritan Laws And The Health Care Provider

good samaritan

Good Samaritan Laws (GSL), enacted to protect individuals who stop at the scene of an emergency to render aid to their injured fellows from liability for doing so, exist in every state. Questions arise among health care providers as to whether this protection extends to them should they render the assistance which they are trained to administer, while not at work tending to patients. In fact GSL do protect licensed health care professionals in such situations, with a few notable exceptions, and in some unique circumstances will also protect them when ‘on duty’.

The biblical story of the Good Samaritan is that of a traveler who is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road for dead, told by Jesus to “an expert in the law” after he asks “‘who is my neighbor’ that I must love as I love myself?” He is given this answer:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”  Luke 10:25-35

This would have been a somewhat shocking tale to the audience it was told since a Jewish priest and a Levite (a privileged tribe of Israel of which Moses was a member) were both respected members of society while a Samaritan would be intensely hated by the Jews and vice versa. Subsequently the term “Good Samaritan” became synonymous with someone who helps a stranger. The original Good Samaritan provided emergency first aid to a victim he happened across, his legacy being this body of protective laws and the naming of a multitude of hospitals. The irony of the story being told to an “expert in the law” is not lost.

While individual state GSL, often called the Good Samaritan Act, have some basic, universal commonalities (protection of citizens from liability when rendering aid unless they engage in ‘willful or wonton misconduct’ in the provision of that aid), many have specific provisions which apply only to health care providers, and sometimes only to specific types of health care providers. The majority of state GSL exclude most care rendered in a medical facility from coverage, either by excluding emergency medical services provided during the ordinary course of work, or services provide by health care providers who have a pre-existing duty to the patient.

But before one assumes that whenever care is rendered in a hospital GSL do not apply, there are some nuanced major exceptions which vary state to state based on specific language in a state’s GSL. Take the California case of Mrs. Angelina McKenna who underwent a D&C and Tubal Ligation at Cedar’s of Lebanon Hospital in 1974. During the post-op period she had a seizure, stopped breathing and went into a coma from which she never recovered. A resident physician. Dr. Warner, who was in the hospital at the time was called emergently to render aid to McKenna. Mckenna’s husband and children filed a lawsuit claiming medical malpractice against the hospital and a number of physicians, including Dr. Warner.

MeKenna was not Dr. Warner’s patient, argued the defense, and he had no legal duty to respond to her emergency either by pre-existing duty or under his contract for employment at Cedars. He was in effect a “volunteer” when a nurse called him to respond to the emergency at hand. He was not a member of any on-call “express team” or similar group charged with the duty to respond to “code blue” or similar emergencies within the hospital as part of their regular duties.

At the time California Business and Professional Code Section 2144 shielded persons from liability if they rendered aid “at the scene of an emergency”.  The defense argued that Warner was responding to the scene of an emergency within the meaning of the statute. The judge in the case gave the following instruction to the jury: “No licensed physician, who in good faith renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency, shall be liable for any civil damages as a result of any of his acts or omissions in rendering the emergency care”. McKenna v Cedars of Lebanon Hospital 93 Cal.App.3d 282 (1979) The jury found in favor of Dr. Warner and the plaintiffs appealed.

The appellate court upheld the jury’s verdict finding that there was no evidence Warner had a legal duty to McKenna and that the legislative intent was to encourage emergency medical care by doctors who otherwise had no duty to treat a patient. An alternative scenario where DSL would provide protection would be the health care provider who, while at work, is walking down the hall and comes across a medical emergency (involving a patient they are not caring for, visitor or staff member). If the provider is not part of a rapid response team to medical emergencies within the hospital ON THAT DAY then GSL are most likely applicable unless a state has a specific provision saying they are not.

The Illinois Good Samaritan Act provides that a licensed physician “who, in good faith, provides emergency care without fee to a person, shall not, as a result of his or her acts or omissions, except willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the person, in providing the care, be liable for civil damages.” 745 ILCS 49/25 The Act applies even where the emergency occurs within a hospital. Johnson v. Matviuw, 176 Ill. App. 3d 907, 917 (1988). In addition, a doctor does not have to prove the absence of a pre-existing duty to render aid to the patient in order to receive the protections of the Act. Neal v. Yang, 352 Ill. App. 3d 820, 829 (2004). Thus, even a physician who is “on-call” and has a duty to provide aid can be immunized under the Act. In Illinois it all comes down to whether the physician is charging the patient for services rendered.

Utah expressly protects health care providers who stop at the scene of an emergency to render aid: “No basic or advance life support personnel who, during training or after certification, or licensed physician or registered nurse who in good faith, provides emergency medical instructions or renders emergency medical care authorized by this chapter shall be liable for civil damages as a result of any acts or omissions, unless found guilty of gross negligence or willful misconduct.” Utah Code Ann. § 26-8-11(2).

Maryland has GSL that protect volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) personnel who respond to the scene of an emergency, even though they are responding in an ambulance called to the scene. Paid EMS workers are not protected.

Individual health care providers should familiarize themselves with their specific state Good Samaritan Act or Laws and any provisions included that apply directly to their provider category. Liability protection is often, but not always, predicated on one or more criteria: whether the individual is “on duty”, has a pre-existing duty to the patient, or is getting paid for services rendered.

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