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GOOD SAMARITAN LAWS

There is a widespread myth that physicians will be sued for a poor outcome if they stop to help a stranger in need. Nevertheless, no physician has ever lost a suit over a Good Samaritan act. It is hard for most physicians and nurses to believe that physicians do not get sued for volunteering medical care. Millions of people watched Dr. Kildare lose a suit for helping at the scene of an accident. Every physician has heard a story over coffee about some other physician who got sued. It may have happened to Dr. Kildare, but it has not happened to any real doctors. There have been many cases in which poor care was rendered in an emergency, but they were cases where the physician had a duty to treat that patient, not cases of volunteer care. Even before the enactment of Good Samaritan laws, there was a common law protection and a social policy against such suits. Unfortunately, the myth persists because it is an excuse for some physicians who refuse to inconvenience themselves by helping others in emergencies.

Because of the pervasive myth of liability in the medical professions, most states have enacted some form of Good Samaritan law prohibiting a patient from suing a physician or other health care professional for injuries from a Good Samaritan act. To trigger the protection of such an act, two conditions must be satisfied: it must be a volunteer act, and the actions must be a good-faith effort to help. Displacing a neck fracture in an effort to do rescue breathing might be malpractice in the emergency room, but it is not bad faith on the roadside. Trying an unnecessary tracheostomy just for the practice would be bad faith.

In the medical sense, a Good Samaritan is a medical care professional who volunteers to help someone in need of emergency medical care. The act must be done without there being any duty to care for the patient and without any expectation of compensation. The classic case is the physician who comes upon the scene of a car accident. A physician who stops and renders aid to the victims of the accident has acted as a Good Samaritan. If the physician later sends a bill for the emergency services, this is no longer a Good Samaritan action. If the victims spontaneously send the physician a dozen roses as a thank-you gift, this does not affect the voluntary nature of the act.

Most of the stories about physicians who are sued for Good Samaritan acts involve a physician who has a duty to treat the patient in question. It is not a Good Samaritan act to take care of one's own patients. The physician-patient relationship is a 24-hour-a-day relationship. A physician at a wedding reception who watches his own diabetic patient eat three pieces of wedding cake and drink a bottle of champagne has a duty to handle the ensuing diabetic coma. The fact that the patient was acting foolishly or that the physician is the bridegroom and is not taking calls does not alter the duty of the physician to provide medical care to his patients when and where they need it.

The legal problem with Good Samaritan laws is that they were unnecessary. If the common law was a perfect protection against a Good Samaritan lawsuit, then specific Good Samaritan legislation cannot improve the situation. Conversely, by passing statutes, legislatures encourage attorneys to look for loopholes. An attorney who can find a way to convince a jury that a physician was not covered by the Good Samaritan law may be tempted to sue.


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