In 1983 a Florida Appellate Court was deciding a case involving Florida’s Good Samaritan Act and concluded: “ As it now stands, it does not appear to be a very good idea to render assistance to an accident victim.” What would lead to such a comment by a Florida Court, and what can be done about it?
I am writing today’s blog for health care professionals that may be curious as to whether they are protected from civil liability while off duty, and while rendering aid to a person during some type of medical emergency.
What is the Good Samaritan Act?
The Good Samaritan Act (GSA) is a Florida Statute (§768.13) that was enacted by the Florida Legislature to provide immunity from civil liability to those persons rendering aid under a variety of circumstances. Read in it’s entirety, the GSA can at times apply to situations within a hospital setting, and even when a veterinarian volunteers treatment to an injured animal. I am limiting the scope this morning to just one part of the GSA, which provides immunity from civil liability when rendering aid “……at the scene of an emergency outside of a hospital, doctor’s office, or other place having proper medical equipment.” The logic behind the GSA is that as a matter of public policy, we want to encourage health care professionals and first responders (or anyone for that matter) to come to the aid of his or her fellow citizen, during a medical emergency, without fear of being sued.
A Personal Example
In 1986, I had just come off of a 48 hour shift as a Pasco County Paramedic-Firefighter, and planned to spend my day off at Adventure Island with my wife and son. While making our way home later that afternoon, as we came around a bend in the road, the scene in front of me was familiar: A head on collision had just occurred, and one of the cars had multiple occupants. There were two persons dead, so my attention was focused on the three that were alive. I had my wife get every beach towel we had to apply pressure to a heavy bleed, gave other motorists arriving a crash course on spinal immobilization, and sent someone to call Hillsborough dispatch for help.
It is not uncommon for EMTs, Paramedics, Law Enforcement Officers and other professionals to come across a medical emergency while off duty. Many will be less dramatic than a head on collision requiring triage, but how much exposure to liability is there when rendering aid to a stroke victim at the mall? A neighbor with a diabetic emergency?
When Will The Good Samaritan Act Protect an Off-Duty First Responder?
Whether you are a heavy equipment operator with no medical training, an off-duty Paramedic stopping at an automobile accident with injuries, or a Registered Nurse running over to assist a neighbor with stroke symptoms, the GSA will presumably protect you from a civil suit when the following occur:
- The care and treatment provided are during an emergency;
- The care and treatment is provided both gratuitously and in good faith;
- The person you are treating does not object, and
- You act as an “ordinary reasonably prudent person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances.”
Again, there is far more to this statute, and I am confining this to address only the situation of rendering aid while off-duty, and outside of a hospital setting.
Does the GSA really Protect Me?
Yes and No. While the statute does offer immunity, it is actually quite weak. My legal opinion is that while the Florida Legislature likely had the best of intentions, the statute is poorly written and needs to be amended to accomplish it’s purpose. Specifically, the following make the “immunity” afforded under the GSA a thin veil of protection:
- The GSA only offers immunity when the Good Samaritan acts as a “reasonably prudent person.” As any experienced trial attorney will tell you, that’s pretty much the level of care we owe to those around us at all times – immunity or no immunity. When I drive home from work today, I must drive as a “reasonably prudent person,” meaning no texting, don’t follow too close to the car in front, etc. Therefore, as far as the GSA, one might ask: “Why even have the statute if it requires a standard of care that is always required?”
- I do not like the wording in the statute that the GSA applies only when “without objection.” While a person has a right under both the Federal and State Constitution to refuse medical treatment, what if you are trying to render aid to someone seriously injured or ill that refuses treatment, but lacks the mental capacity to make a choice. Common examples include such emergencies as a seriously injured intoxicated person, some stroke patients, and hypoglycemic diabetics. Each of these individuals might tell you to “get the **** away” from them, but require emergency medical help. Paramedics frequently treat these persons in the field under the doctrine of implied consent.
How Can the Good Samaritan Statute be Cured to offer the Immunity it was meant provide?
First, the Florida Legislature should change the statute so that the “reckless disregard” standard applies to all scenarios under the GSA. This would provide immunity unless the person rendering aid was just flat reckless in the treatment (as opposed to merely “reasonable”). An example of reckless behavior that would not be protected would be attempting to pour orange juice down the throat of your unresponsive diabetic neighbor because you suspect hypoglycemia. Additionally, include language that treatment rendered against the objection of a person during an emergency constitutes implied consent, and that the injured or ill person would have the burden of proving that he or she possessed the capacity to refuse treatment.
The legislature should amend the Good Samaritan Act, Fla Stat. §768.13, to provide the intended legal protection to off duty nurses, EMS personal, law enforcement officers, and other first responders that volunteer assistance to those during a medical emergency.