The term “Good Samaritan” comes from the gospel of Luke. In the parable told by Christ, a Samaritan helped a Jew who had been beaten and robbed. At the time, the Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies. Through the parable, Jesus attempts to redefine what it means to be a good neighbor.
Reading some recent conversations on the good Samaritan law in a few online forums, I’m reminded not of the biblical parable, but of the parable of the six blind men describing an elephant. Remember that one? One guy feels the side and thinks an elephant is like a wall, the other feels the tail and thinks an elephant is like to a rope? Initiating a discussion on the good Samaritan law in an online forum of EMTs is an invitation for confusion and scorn.
“It only applies to bystanders.”
“No it doesn’t! It only applies to EMS personnel.”
“And only if you’re off duty. Unless you’re a volunteer. And then only … no … wait.” And on and on.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
As we saw with our exploration of the duty to act, much of the confusion regarding the good Samaritan law is the fact that it is a collection of state laws, not a single federal law. When we talk about the good Samaritan law we often become like the blind men feeling the elephant, talking about our own states without understanding that the subject is much larger than we see. We can be correct and wrong at the same time.
So lets start by stepping back and looking at the whole elephant. These are the things that are true about this collection of laws regardless of where you might roam.
1.) Most countries that operate under some form of the English Common Law system have a form of good Samaritan law. Countries where civil law is the legal foundation tend to encapsulate good Samaritan rules into the duty to rescue laws.
2.) Good Samaritan laws are designed to offer some form of legal protection for individuals who attempt to assist others who are sick, injured or in need of rescue. The goal is to reduce a would-be rescuer’s hesitation or fear of being sued for unintended injury or wrongful death if they make a mistake.
3.) Good Samaritan laws are intended to protect individuals who do not have a duty to act. If you, for any of the various legal reasons, have a duty to act, you do not receive protection or exception from liability under traditional good sam laws.
Now things get fuzzy.
Depending on where you live, the good Samaritan law may only apply to trained rescuers. These laws may protect individuals who have completed CPR or basic first aid training. It may cover professional rescuers from the EMT level up through physicians. In some regions only untrained citizens fall under good sam protection and in other areas it only covers the pros. (That’s you and me.)
What protection is a good Samaritan given?
Even when you do fall under the provisions of the good sam laws the protection provided is still limited. If you do something that may have breached the veil of immunity you may still find yourself headed to court to try to prove you did not commit one of these acts:
Gross negligence. - You couldn’t act negligently when you had a duty to act and, guess what? You still can’t under good sam laws.
Willful and wanton disregard. – This suggestive legal verbiage is a lawyers way of saying you can’t do something phenomenally stupid. If you do, you’ll still get charged.
Malpractice. – You can’t operate outside of your scope of practice or the whole good sam thing goes out the window.
Abandonment. – In most areas, once you initiate care you still need to hand off to the same or higher level of care. In some rural areas, this may mean a ride to the hospital.
A federal crime. – The good sam laws, being state specific, offer no protection from federal lawsuits such as civil rights infringements.
Assault or battery. – Victims who do not fall under implied consent must still consent to care for the rescuer to be considered a good Samaritan.
So, as you can see, the good Samaritan laws aren’t a free ticket to legal immunity. You can still get yourself in a ton of hot water for doing things that are medically inappropriate. Even untrained bystanders can still be hauled into court as in the case of Lisa Torti of California.
I found the most troubling aspect of the Torti case was the avalanche of internet commentary it caused. Would be rescuers and citizens alike chimed in from across the country (well outside of California’s legal jurisdiction) to exclaim that they would no longer consider helping another in need. I found it surprising how little risk people were willing to accept to assist another person in need.
I would suggest that if you find legal protection necessary before you are willing to help another person in need, perhaps you should just stay out of the situation. Sometimes doing the right thing involves personal risk. If you help another person when it is not your duty to do so, good Samaritan laws may help protect you and they may not. However, the greatest protection will always be good training, sound judgment and a solid core of medical knowledge. Act appropriately and be an advocate for the patient and you shouldn’t ever have to worry about the good Samaritan law.
And that brings us full circle to the parable of the good Samaritan. He wasn’t worried about the personal risks or liability. He wasn’t worried what his neighbors might think if he showed up in his neighborhood with a wounded Jewish traveler. He knew what was right in his heart. I’d like to think all of us have a bit of that in us as well. That’s why we chose this work.