When you're a Good Samaritan
Q. In my many years as an internist, I've been involved in several medical emergencies outside the office-on a plane, in a theater, and at public events. I've assumed I'm protected when acting as a Good Samaritan. But my colleagues tell me I'm crazy, and that I'm risking a malpractice suit. Are they right?
Some states offer Good Samaritan protection only to physicians who treat accident victims at the scene, but not to those who respond to emergencies that occur at a hospital or other medical facility. Under that standard, for example, you could risk liability if you volunteer at a nonprofit community clinic and treat an accident victim there.
To qualify for protection as a Good Samaritan, you shouldn't ask for or accept payment for your services. If you do bill someone you've treated at an accident scene, and something goes wrong, you could be held to the standard of ordinary negligence as in any nonemergency care.
Q. I'm a cardiologist and also a "soccer mom" who attends most of my son's games. When children get hurt on the field, I'm often asked to provide on-the-spot evaluations and first aid treatment. I'm not comfortable doing this. Am I risking liability?
A. You're right to be concerned. Examining and treating an injured child in response to a parent's or coach's request in that situation could create a duty of care, and make you a potential defendant in a malpractice case if something went wrong.
Unless the injury is a real emergency, you won't be protected from a lawsuit as a Good Samaritan just because your services are voluntary and uncompensated. If the parents or the coach ask for your help, and you provide treatment, you've legally formed a doctor-patient relationship with the child, and you can be held to the same standard of care as a pediatrician or orthopedist. In such nonemergency situations, your safest course would be to state that you're not trained in pediatrics or orthopedics, and offer to make a referral to an appropriate specialist.
The author, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
, is a healthcare attorney in Mt. Kisco, NY, specializing in risk management issues.
This department answers common professional liability questions. It isn't intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have a question, please submit it to Malpractice Consult, Medical Economics, 5 Paragon Drive, Montvale, NJ 07645-1742. You may also fax your question to 973-847-5390 or e-mail it to email@example.com