There is a widespread myth that physicians will be sued for a poor outcome if
they stop to help a stranger in need. Despite the reality that 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 filed 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 medical 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.
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.
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.
Conversely, if the physician is being compensated for the work, either with
payment or in kind, most Good Samaritan laws will not cover the physician’s
actions. It is a closer call whether physicians agreeing to provide volunteer
care, such as at a Girl Scout camp or a rock concert, are covered by Good
Samaritan laws. This will depend on the wording of the specific state law.
Some laws stick to the limited definition of a Good Samaritan as someone who
volunteers at the scene of an accident or other unexpected site where medical
care is necessary. This would not include situations where the physician
explicitly assumed the duty to care for a group of people, even for no pay.
Physicians who plan on providing this type of care should check with their
medical malpractice insurers to be sure it is covered by their policy. Their
insurer should also be able to explain the provisions of the applicable Good