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Know the Law Before Acting as Good Samaritan

Nancy Brent

Many of you have asked about your duty to act in an emergency situation -- for instance, when you are not at work and come upon an accident with injuries, a person who is experiencing a medical event, or perhaps even a woman in labor. The focus of these questions is always about a legal duty to provide care in such a situation. A nurse is not legally obligated to provide care to anyone outside of his or her employment obligations (Carolyn Buppert, March 4, 2015, "What Can I Do In An Off-Duty Emergency?"). If, however, you believe you should ethically provide help in an emergency situation, know that Good Samaritan Laws in your state protect you when you do so. Good Samaritan Laws vary in their protections and you can review what your state provides online. General concepts in these laws include certain requirements. First, the protection for immunity from any lawsuit that may arise due to your care or treatment applies to ordinary negligence. If you provide care willfully or wantonly, that is, without due care or with a total disregard of the safety and well-being of the individual, the immunity from suit would not apply under this statute. Some of the state statutes use the term "grossly negligent." Second, you must not know of any medical or other condition of the person to whom you provide care. And, third, you receive no compensation for the care you provided to the individual. You may wonder if the Good Samaritan laws really protect you when you stop to render aid or treatment to someone you do not know. In one case, McDaniel v. Keck [861 N.Y.S.2d 516 (2008)], a school nurse was with her students at another school district's farm when the 7-year-old son of the farm's caretaker poked himself in the eye. The school nurse did not know the boy but volunteered to examine his eye. She told the parents to put ice on the eye until the swelling went down. Several days later an ophthalmologist examined the eye, found the eye to be infected due to a piece of wire in the eye. After several surgeries, the eye was removed. The parents filed a suit against the school nurse and her employer. The trial court granted a summary judgment motion for the school and the school nurse. The parents appealed that decision. The appellate court carefully reviewed the conduct of the school nurse and the state's Good Samaritan Law. The court stated the school nurse did not have a duty to care for the boy who was injured. Rather, she was there to provide care to her students only -- should the need arise. In addition, the parents did not allege that the school nurse was grossly negligent, as was required by the state statute. The court upheld the lower court's granting of the summary judgment motion in favor of the school and school nurse. Knowing your protections under your state Good Samaritan Law is important, especially if you want to help or believe ethically you should provide care and/or treatment during an emergency. Clearly, the choice is yours. What choice would you make if confronted with such an emergency situation? NOTE: Nancy Brent's posts are designed for educational purposes and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Visit The American Association of Nurse Attorneys website to search its attorney referral database by state.