As of December 18, 2008, helping someone in need just became risky and complicated. In a split decision, the California Supreme Court determined that if you attempt to render non-medical assistance to someone (even if as part of a rescue attempt,) you can be held personally liable for any injury that the victim may claim you caused or made worse by your actions. The dissenting justices expressed concerns that the entire purpose of the Good Samaritan act, to encourage people to help those in need, rather that walking on by, was in grave danger by the ruling. Nevertheless, in this case, the distinction prevailed.
The case in question was an accident. One of the parties in the crash pulled the other from her vehicle. The plaintiff claims it was unnecessary, as there was no eminent threat posed by her remaining in the car, and that she was pulled from a car “like a rag doll,” allegedly aggravating a vertebrae injury, leaving her paraplegic. The CA Supreme Court made distinction between medical care (which is protected under the Good Samaritan law, so long as the care is determined to be reasonable,) and this action, which allegedly caused further harm to the already injured woman.
California is not alone in this position. Several other states restrict the type of aid one may give without risk of civil liability. Oklahoma, for example, only protects those providing CPR and stopping bleeding. Some states restrict the immunity of the Good Samaritan law to reasonable care provided by trained medical professionals. Even then, this case demonstrates that you could be sued for what you did prior to administering that medical care.
Whether the plaintiff was “thrown like a rag doll” or not is for the courts to decide. What matters to healthcare professionals is that they become familiar with the laws of the state they’re in, and be conscious of the distinction between rendering aid and rendering medical care. There is no mandate to provide care; coming to the aid of someone encountered on the street is not legally obligatory.
Many Professional Malpractice policies will only cover you while you’re acting in your official capacity, on the job. Protect yourself by knowing your policy’s coverages and exemptions in this regard. We here at Presidio encourage you to call us to find out more about this aspect, or to evaluate your Medical Malpractice policy coverages.