A physician driving down the highway comes upon a car wreck with an injured driver in need of immediate medical aid. Should the physician stop and help, or pass by the other side?
As a matter of morality, the answer is obvious: help. As a matter of law, the answer is: you don’t have to help, but if you do help, and you act negligently, you will not be held liable unless you are grossly negligent.
Ordinarily, a person does not have a legal duty to help someone unless some special relationship between the parties creates a duty to render aid. So, for example, one may ignore with legal impunity the child drowning in the river and the man bleeding to death on the public sidewalk. We may despise him, but we may not make him pay money damages for his callousness.
However, if the law will not make us do the right thing in an emergency, it at least tries to encourage us to do so, by giving us immunity from liability so long as we do not act with “gross negligence.” In Tennessee, that law is known as the “Good Samaritan Law,” which provides:
Any person, including those licensed to practice medicine and surgery . . . , who in good faith:
(1) Renders emergency care at the scene of an accident, medical emergency and/or disaster, while en route from such scene to a medical facility and while assisting medical personnel at the receiving medical facility, including use of an automated external defibrillator, to the victim or victims thereof without making any direct charge for the emergency care; or
(2) Participates or assists in rendering emergency care, including use of an automated external defibrillator, to persons attending or participating in performances, exhibitions, banquets, sporting events, religious or other gatherings open to the general public, with or without an admission charge, whether or not such emergency care is made available as a service, planned in advance by the promoter of the event and/or any other person or association,
shall not be liable to such victims or persons receiving emergency care for any civil damages as a result of any act or omission by such person in rendering the emergency care, or as a result of any act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured person, except such damages as may result from the gross negligence of the person rendering such emergency care.
The Good Samaritan Law applies to anyone who voluntarily gives aid in an emergency, not just physicians. The law applies in any setting where someone might need emergency aid: the roadside, a restaurant, a concert hall, a church. The law grants immunity so long as:
- The person acts voluntarily — the person must act without being legally required to act. That is because the purpose of the statute is to induce aid by volunteers, not by those already under a duty to render aid.
- The person renders emergency care — the victim must have a condition that requires immediate medical care, and the care rendered must be necessary to treat the condition.
- The person acts in good faith — the person must act intending to provide emergency care to the victim, as opposed to some other bad purpose.
- The person does not commit gross negligence — gross negligence is negligence (the failure to act as an ordinary reasonable person would under the circumstances) plus a conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.
Of special note to physicians, the immunity applies to the use of automated external defibrillators, and applies if the person rendering aid accompanies the victim to the hospital and assists medical personnel at the hospital.
To see how the Good Samaritan Statute works, let’s apply it to the following scenarios:
1. A physician is driving down the road and comes across a car crash victim bleeding to death from a deep gash. The physician stops and applies a bandage to stop the bleeding. Due to the physician’s negligence, the bandage causes an infection that kills the victim some days later. Is the physician immune from liability?
Yes. The physician had no pre-existing legal duty to aid the motorist, provided emergency care in good faith, and only acted negligently.
2. The physician continues home, where the physician hosts a raucous party at which a guest falls ill from alcohol poisoning, passes out, and stops breathing. The physician performs CPR but fails to revive the victim, due to the physician’s negligence. The patient dies. Is the physician immune from liability?
No. The Good Samaritan Law does not apply, because the host at a party owes a duty of care to guests. (That’s not to say the physician is necessarily liable; figuring that out would require more facts and more analysis. The physician just is not immune from liability under the Good Samaritan law.)
3. The physician goes to church the next day. The physician's worst enemy, who is a fellow parishioner, has a heart attack and passes out in the middle of the service. The physician performs CPR, but deliberately does so ineptly, in order to cause the man to die. Is the physician immune from liability?
No. The physician did not act in good faith and was grossly negligent.
4. The next day, while eating at a restaurant, and having had far too much to drink, the physician witnesses a patron at another table choking. The physician drunkenly attempts the Heimlich maneuver, but fails. Another, non-intoxicated physician in the restaurant offers to help, but the drunken physician ignores the offer and performs an emergency tracheotomy with a pocketknife. In the physician's drunken state, the physician nicks the carotid artery, causing the patron to bleed to death. Is the physician immune from liability?
No. The physician’s decision to perform the tracheotomy in a drunken state knowing another physician is available to help shows a conscious disregard for the safety of the patient and constitutes gross negligence.
Tennessee’s Good Samaritan Law gives ample protection to a physician who tries to do the right thing in an emergency. So next time someone shouts, “Is there a doctor in the house?” — say yes.