Can you be sued for being a Good Samaritan?

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 1, 2018

Key Takeaways

You probably know the parable of the Good Samaritan: A man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Two upstanding people ignore the man as they walk by. A third man, who was from the enemy territory of Samaria, felt compassion for the injured man and stopped. The Samaritan tended to the injured man, and even paid an innkeeper to look after him.

These days, physicians may worry that if they stop to provide emergency care, they may be later sued by the injured party or their family should complications arise. And such worries can delay or even prevent a physician from offering assistance when someone cries out, “Is there a doctor in the house?”

Fortunately, the law is on your side when you act as a Good Samaritan. While there is no federal law, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that offer legal protection to encourage people, including physicians, to act as Good Samaritans and provide care at the scene of an accident or emergency.

According to one article about Good Samaritan laws, the statutes differ somewhat from state to state, but most boil down to this: Any physician who, in good faith and without compensation or expectation of payment, renders first aid or emergency care at the scene of an accident or emergency to a person who is not currently his/her patient shall not be held liable for civil damages resulting from any acts or omissions when rendering care.

Some specifics:

• Negligence. Physicians acting as Good Samaritans generally have legal immunity to claims of ordinary negligence but not gross negligence. “Ordinary” negligence means that the person providing aid didn’t act as a reasonable health-care provider would under similar circumstances. “Gross” negligence not only means that the physician didn’t measure up to the standard of care, but also that his or her actions were done with willful or reckless misconduct, or intentional harm or wrongdoing.

• Not your patient. Most states, though not all, require that emergency care must be provided at or near the scene of an accident or emergency. Therefore, medical care provided as part of the ordinary ongoing patient-physician relationship isn’t protected by Good Samaritan statutes.

• Out-of-state care. A physician from one state is generally protected from liability when acting as a Good Samaritan in another state.

• Duty to act. In most states, physicians have no legal obligation to provide Good Samaritan care. The exceptions are Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont, in which any bystander has a duty to provide “reasonable assistance” to anyone in danger of grave physical harm (regardless of whether the harm resulted from an accident, crime, or other type of emergency).

• No compensation. Most Good Samaritan Laws require that the physician provide the emergency care free of charge. Billing the patient for services may establish a physician-patient relationship, which could remove your protection from liability. Accepting a “thank you” gift from the patient may be permissible, though.

• Defibrillation. On the whole, anyone who applies a defibrillator in an emergency has immunity from liability.

• On a plane. The Aviation Medical Assistance Act, a federal statute passed in 1998, protects physicians from liability due to ordinary negligence (but not gross negligence) when providing care during an in-flight medical emergency on a commercial airplane registered in the United States.

Interestingly, a lawyer is to thank for the tale of the Good Samaritan. In the Gospel of Luke, it was a lawyer who was talking to Jesus about the Golden Rule and loving thy neighbor as thyself. The lawyer, apparently looking to define terms, asked, “Who is my neighbor?” That’s when Jesus, who knew enough to not give a lawyer a straight answer, went  into the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer concluded that the Samaritan acted as the good neighbor to the injured man. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. One wonders if the lawyer did.

In any event, “the odds of being successfully sued for malpractice as a result of providing Good Samaritan care are stacked well in your favor, so much so that the fear of litigation should not be a factor in your decision about whether to help when the situation presents itself,” according to an article in Family Practice Management. “Next time you happen upon an accident scene or hear a plea for emergency medical assistance, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and be confident that your best effort will be good enough.”

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