Good Samaritan Laws

Dec. 1, 2004
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. . . .”
– 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.

While all states protect the act of assisting another person, they differ in the circumstances where the protection applies. Some states protect assistance provided in any emergency. Others apply only to “accidents,” which is a narrower definition, or to certain types of emergencies. Some laws take the opposite approach by specifying when the special Good Samaritan protections don’t apply.

An important new wrinkle to these laws is coverage for the use of an automatic external defibrillator (AED). Many states have specifically modified their laws in recent years to specify that a person using an AED is protected.

We can all hope that our voluntary acts of providing aid to strangers in need will be rewarded, rather than punished, but the world doesn’t always act that way. It is important to know how the law in your state protects you by answering these questions:

  • Who is protected? Any person, or just those with specific types of qualifications?
  • Under what circumstances does the protection apply? In any emergency, or some more limited circumstances?
  • Does the law apply when you are being compensated? Are you being compensated when you are off duty? (What are your department’s policies regarding off-duty response to emergencies?)
  • What level of negligence or recklessness is necessary for the protection to be waived?
  • Does the law cover the use of an AED?

The law should never stand in the way of us assisting others in need. If your state’s law discourages us, then perhaps you should seek to change it.

Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.

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