Liability risks for the Good Samaritan

March 10, 2012

Emergencies can happen in everyday life and as a medical professional, you may want to help. Discover the ins and outs of liability law for doctors who help strangers.

This is a true story that happened to me. The following are some of the questions my physician friend/volunteer asked me.

Declining to volunteer is not a crime. There is no civil liability for not volunteering.

DUTY MATTERS WHEN DEFENDING A LAWSUIT

For a malpractice lawsuit filed against a physician to prevail, a plaintiff must prove four elements: duty to a patient, breach of that duty, proximate cause, and damages.

For a plaintiff to win a malpractice case, first he or she must prove that the doctor had a duty to treat him or her. Duty is the key. It is duty that makes a physician a potential defendant. If a doctor can prove he or she did not have a duty to the patient, usually the doctor can get out of the lawsuit.

Duty derives from the physician/patient relationship. It is contractual. Both parties must agree. Usually a patient requests medical services and a doctor agrees to provide them. If duty is established, then the physician must show that he or she fulfilled his or her duty and met the standard of care.

The contract to treat can be express or implied. For an express contract, the parties must explicitly agree to terms verbally or in writing. For an implied contract, the agreement is implicit in the behavior of the parties.

In an emergency, the agreement to treat is implicit in the situation and is closely tied to the concept of informed consent (we'll get to that later).

The public policy behind Good Samaritan law aims to encourage healthcare professionals to render aid in emergencies. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have Good Samaritan laws. The federal government has one that covers domestic airplane travel. Each state law is different, but all states attempt to encourage aid by restricting the liability of those who provide it.

Doctors are not immune from liability when acting as Good Samaritans. State laws encourage Good Samaritan actions by limiting physicians' liability, but protections aren't always ironclad.

The usual standard of care in a malpractice lawsuit is what a "reasonable" practitioner in the same specialty would have done in similar circumstances at the time of the event in question. Negligence occurs only if a doctor falls short of what a "reasonable" practitioner with the same specialty would have done in similar circumstances.