Good Samaritan Protection Applies to More Than Health Care Professionals
Ohio’s Good Samaritan law applies to any person who administers emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency including, but not limited, to health care professionals, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
In an opinion written by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the Supreme Court voted 4-3 to affirm the dismissal of a lawsuit against Larry Reese Jr. whose conduct severely injured Dennis Carter. Carter got trapped between his tractor-trailer and a loading dock, and Reese responded to his calls of help. Reese, who did not know how to drive the truck, attempted to move it forward, yet it rolled backward, and injured Carter
The Court clarified that the phrase “administering emergency care” in Ohio’s Good Samaritan law applies not only to rendering medical care, but also to any other form of assistance to the safety and well-being of another when the result of an unforeseen combination of circumstances calls for immediate action.
In separate dissenting opinions, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Paul E. Pfeifer agreed with Justice O’Donnell that the law applies to more than just medical care providers. However, Chief Justice O’Connor reasoned the law should apply to more scenarios than “unforeseen” circumstances, and Justice Pfeifer maintained in this case that Reese was not rendering “emergency care.”
Accident Leads to Amputation
In April 2012, Carter pulled his tractor-trailer into the loading dock of AIC Contracting Inc. in Fairfield. While attempting to pull away a second trailer, he moved his truck about four to six inches away from the loading dock, unlocked the trailer brake, and locked the tractor brake so that the tractor’s wheels could not move. As he attempted to shut the trailer door, he slipped and his leg became wedged between the dock and the trailer.
Although he was not in physical pain, he could not free himself and began to yell for help and bang on the loading dock door. About 10 minutes later, Reese heard Carter and drove into AIC’s lot.
Carter told Reese: “Get in my truck, move it forward about a foot,… but whatever you do, don’t put it in reverse.” Reese climbed into the truck and put it in neutral before realizing that he did not know how to operate it. The trailer rolled backward breaking Carter’s leg. About four minutes later, paramedics arrived to free Carter, and someone moved the truck. Carter’s leg needed to be amputated above the knee.
Carter and his wife sued Reese, but did not allege he had engaged in willful or wanton misconduct. Reese asserted the Ohio Good Samaritan statute, R.C. 2305.23, as a defense, and the trial court granted summary judgment to Reese. The Twelfth District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision and the Carters appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Carters Argued Good Samaritan Protection Limited to Health Care Providers
R.C. 2305.23 provides immunity from civil liability, and the Carters argued that protection applies only for health care professionals and trained first responders who voluntarily administer emergency medical care and treatment at the scene of the emergency. To support their position, the Carters noted the statute states it does not apply when the emergency care or treatment is administered in a hospital, doctor’s office, or other place having proper medical care, nor does it apply to law enforcement officers and firefighters providing care as part of their duties.
The Carters further point to a footnote in the Court’s 1975 Primes v. Tyler decision that states R.C. 2305.23 applies to those rendering medical treatment. The couple also argued that Reese did not provide any emergency care or treatment when he attempted to move the truck and is not immune from civil liability.
R.C. 2305.23 states: “No person shall be liable in civil damages for administering emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency…, for acts performed at the scene of such emergency, unless such acts constitute willful or wanton misconduct.”
Good Samaritan Laws Vary by State
Justice O’Donnell explained that this is a case of first impression involving whether the legislature intended the term “no person” to apply only to health care professionals and emergency responders, or more broadly to anyone providing emergency care or treatment, and whether “administering emergency care” is limited only to medical care.
Justice O’Donnell noted that Ohio common law generally does not require any bystander to come to the aid of or to protect another person, but those who voluntarily do so without expectation of payment are liable for any injuries that result from “failure to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.”
However, in 1959, California started a trend of enacting Good Samaritan statutes, which first applied to physicians to encourage them to provide treatment during emergency situations without fear of a malpractice lawsuit. Justice O’Donnell explained that since then every state has passed some version of a Good Samaritan statute.
Those statutes fall into three general categories: ones that apply only to medically trained personnel, ones that apply to rendering only medical aid, and those that apply broadly to all persons providing emergency care and assistance without expressly requiring that the assistance be medical.
Justice O’Donnell concluded that Ohio’s law falls into the broader category.
“If the legislature had intended that this statute apply only to health care professionals, it could have expressed its intent by using a more limiting phrase such as ‘no health care professional shall be liable in civil damages’ or by naming the categories of individuals it intended to exclude from liability, e.g., physicians or nurses,” he wrote.
He further explained that the legislature knows how to express its intent to limit liability because the following statute, R.C. 2305.231, specifically limits the liability of doctors, dentists, and registered nurses serving as volunteers with school athletics programs.
“Administering Emergency Care” Undefined in Good Samaritan Law
Because “administering emergency care” is not defined in the law, Justice O’Donnell explained the Court looks to the “plain and ordinary meaning of the words” to interpret the legislature’s intent. He cited Webster’s Third New International Dictionary’s definition of “emergency” as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” He noted that Webster’s defines “care” as “responsibility for or attention to safety and well-being.”
Justice O’Donnell wrote that to limit the law to only medical care would require the Court to add language to the statute. He also noted when a 2008 California court decision limited the phrase “emergency care” to medical care, California state lawmakers promptly amended the state’s Good Samaritan law to clarify that emergency care meant “emergency medical or nonmedical care.”
“Similarly, the Ohio General Assembly used the phrase emergency care, not emergency medical care, and therefore, its intent is more expansive and includes both medical and nonmedical emergency care,” he wrote. “Thus, the phrase ‘administering emergency care’ as used in Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute includes rendering medical and any other form of assistance to the safety and well-being of another when the result of an unforeseen combination of circumstances calls for immediate action.”
In this case, when Carter got stuck and could not free himself it led to an unforeseen combination of circumstances that called for immediate action, thereby constituting an “emergency” for purposes of the statute. Reese administered care at the scene of the emergency and because there is no allegation that Reese’s conduct was willful or wanton, he is not liable for civil damages to the Carters, Justice O’Donnell concluded.
Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill joined Justice O’Donnell’s opinion.
Chief Justice Would Have Jury Further Examine Case
In her dissent, Chief Justice O’Connor objected to defining an “emergency” as events that are “an unforeseen combination of circumstances,” and the trial court’s disposing of the case by summary judgment rather than having a jury hear the facts of the case before making a decision.
Chief Justice O’Connor noted that although some authorities might define an emergency as an unforeseen series of events, others also include situations that are foreseeable. She gave the examples of a high school football game where the likelihood that a player might suffer a concussion, and a swimming pool with lifeguards on duty. In both cases, a person might suffer an injury that is certainly foreseeable and requires emergency care by a Good Samaritan. In those cases, the law should be clear that those responders are entitled to protection.
“But under the majority’s definition of an emergency, the foreseeable nature of injuries, including those at football games and swimming pools, renders them outside the scope of R.C. 2305.23’s protections. It is inconceivable that the General Assembly intended such a result. And if such a limitation was desired, the legislature could have incorporated it into the statute,” she wrote.
Regarding the trial court’s action, Chief Justice O’Connor noted the parties are disputing whether an emergency existed when Reese attempted to move the truck. She pointed to several other states where courts found the subjective nature of the circumstances required a jury or other fact-finder to evaluate the behavior of the responder seeking Good Samaritan protection. She wrote she would require a jury to decide the reasonableness of Reese’s actions and whether an emergency existed.
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger joined Chief Justice O’Connor’s dissent.
Justice Sees No Emergency
Justice Pfeifer in his dissent noted that Carter was trapped, but was not in pain or danger.
“He was inconvenienced and he wanted to get out, but the situation did not demand urgent action. It demanded rational action, reasoned to fit the situation,” he wrote.
If Carter were about to fall off a building or if the truck were rolling toward him, then Carter would have required “immediate action,” which the majority determined is part of the definition of an “emergency, ” Justice Pfeifer maintained.
“What Carter needed was a person competent to move a tractor-trailer forward without allowing any movement backward. That did not have to be done immediately or urgently―it needed to be done well,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, it was not done well, because Reese didn’t know how to drive a tractor-trailer. Reese should have sought assistance from a competent driver. Instead, he inserted himself into a situation that did not demand immediate action and made the situation much worse.”
Because the situation did not demand immediate or urgent action, Justice Pfeifer found Reese should not be shielded by the Good Samaritan law, and he would reverse the judgment of the lower courts.
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