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The Good Samaritan Gone Wrong: Law Meant to Protect Altruists Creates Dangerous Loophole for Malpractice in the ER

by E. Rose Kasweck

Whether you learned it in Sunday School or somewhere else along the way, we’ve all heard some version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man goes out of his way to help another man even though he is stranger to him and has nothing to offer in return. To be a Good Samaritan has come to generally mean being a charitable or helpful person (especially to strangers and people in trouble).

Many states, including Florida, have taken this concept and integrated it into law. The purpose of these Good Samaritan laws is to protect from liability those who step in to voluntarily render aid in an emergency. The idea makes the utmost sense. In what many considered to be our overly-litigious society, some may hesitate to intervene in an emergency out of fear of being blamed for the outcome.

Imagine a stranger is in front of you having a heart attack. There’s a portable defibrillator on the wall. But you’ve never used one before. You have no previous medical training. Things are happening so fast. You don’t know if you have time to fully process and understand the instructions. You’ve called 9-1-1, but now what do you do? Do you try the defibrillator? What if you don’t do it right? What if doesn’t work? You want to help but you’re scared.

Good Samaritan laws attempt to alleviate at least some of these fears. The public policy behind them is that, if you know you can’t be sued for what your actions, even if you do mess it up, you’re more likely to at least try to help. Generally, you have no legal duty to render aid to a stranger. But Good Samaritan Laws encourage you to try.

Where the good idea behind these laws breaks down for me is when they are applied to Emergency Room doctors. ER doctors are not Good Samaritans voluntarily stepping in to render aid in an unexpected situation. They are highly trained (and highly paid) skilled professionals who have expressly and purposefully put themselves in the position to deal with emergencies daily. The ER doctor didn’t just happen to see you having a heart attack while he was walking down the street and stop to try to help. The ER doctor put up a sign in big flashing lights that says COME TO ME IF YOU’RE HAVING A HEART ATTACK, I CAN HELP YOU.

And yet, in Florida, despite holding themselves out to be the people to go to in an emergency situation, they are completely immune from liability for any injuries caused by their negligence under those very circumstances. If you or your loved one is harmed by an Emergency Room doctor rendering treatment during an “emergency situation” you have to prove not only that the doctor negligent, but that they have behaved much more egregiously than that. You have to prove that their treatment demonstrated complete reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions. (And in a true emergency situation those consequences are likely to be death or seriously bodily injury to the patient.)

Now, I understand that Emergency Room doctors have a tough job. We are lucky anyone is willing to put themselves in the position to regularly deal with nothing but other people’s life-or-death situations. But the negligence standard that applies to doctors in every other situation, already takes into account how situational factors affect actions. In order to avoid liability (outside of an emergency situation) a doctor must demonstrate “that level of care, skill and treatment which, in light of all relevant surrounding circumstances, is recognized as acceptable and appropriate by reasonably prudent similar health care providers.”

In the midst of a medical emergency action must be taken quickly and decisively, which ups the stress and difficulty level considerably and means mistakes are more likely to happen. But since the standard of care is already a moving standard that takes into account the heat-of-the-moment nature of emergency situations, I just don’t see why we should give Emergency Room doctors carte blanche to act negligently.

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