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– Luke 10: 33-34
These words highlight what is perhaps Jesus’ most widely known parable, one which instantly conjures the image of strangers helping strangers in need. The “Good Samaritan” has long been an instrumental element of our culture. So much so that every state now has a “Good Samaritan” statute designed to provide legal protection against liability for those who voluntarily offer assistance to strangers in need.
Little evidence exists to document how often people stop at emergency scenes or, more importantly, how often people fail to stop out of some fear of liability – but, there are anecdotes about “Good Samaritans,” especially emergency service providers, who faced lawsuits.
Good Samaritan laws were created to encourage individuals to help in emergencies by granting immunity from civil damages and thereby removing the fear of liability. In some states, the laws clearly are intended to encourage firefighters, EMTs and other health-care professionals who are off duty to provide care without fear of lawsuits.
In general, there is no legal duty for a person to provide assistance to another who is sick, injured or in danger, unless there is a prior relationship, such as doctor/patient or parent/child. (A handful of states, however, apparently do impose an affirmative obligation on trained personnel to stop and aid at an emergency scene.) If a person does give help, however, that person’s actions must not be reckless. Further, once bystanders begin to help, they must not abandon the victim until the job is finished. This typically occurs when someone of equal or greater training arrives to take over or when continuing to give aid is no longer safe. Generally, it is acceptable for the responder to leave the scene to call for needed assistance.
Underneath this apparently simple and laudatory goal, however, lie potentially complex issues, especially for those in the fire and emergency medical services. Perhaps the most significant consideration is the standard of care that must be exercised to be eligible for immunity. Good Samaritan laws in at least 33 states protect those who render aid “in good faith,” so long as their actions are not reckless. Most states protect against ordinary negligence, but not gross negligence. In other states, laws provide protection unless the actions are in “willful and wanton” disregard of the victim’s condition. This is a higher standard, and more difficult to prove. In most states, the assistance provided must not be in exchange for any reward or compensation. Many states specify that the aid be given “gratuitously” or “voluntarily.”
Generally, Good Samaritan laws do not provide legal protection to firefighters and EMS personnel while on duty, but protection is provided by other doctrines, such as sovereign immunity. Questions have arisen, however, as to when personnel are off duty. For example, emergency personnel in some locations have been awarded worker’s compensation coverage for injuries incurred while off duty and responding to emergencies. It has been argued that responders who are eligible for worker’s compensation protection are being compensated, and therefore not protected by any Good Samaritan statute.
The laws vary in who they protect. At least 38 states protect “any person,” but others limit protection to people with specific medical certifications, such as “licensed health-care professionals.” For example, Connecticut’s law applies to EMTs, volunteer and paid firefighters, and ambulance personnel, but apparently not the general public.