On-duty emergency physicians are liable for damages despite the Good Samaritan Act

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In Illinois, the Good Samaritan Act protects individuals giving instructions for aid, or rendering aid to others in emergencies, from civil liability for damages resulting in the process. Simply stated, a bystander or passerby who sees someone with an injury or emergency condition does not have a legal duty to stop and give general or medical aid. Moreover, a passerby who stops to assist and render some type of aid, cannot be sued and found liable for civil damages if the endangered individual suffers and injury or dies in the process. The purpose of the Good Samaritan Act is to allow people to try to save a choking victim without worrying about a wrongful death suit if they are not successful.

The Good Samaritan Act includes a physician exemption from civil liability for emergency care. The statute states in pertinent part: “Any person licensed under the Medical Practice Act of 1987 or any person licensed to practice the treatment of human ailments in any other state or territory of the United States who, in good faith, provides emergency care without fee to a person, shall not, as a result of his or her acts or omissions, except willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the person, in providing the care, be liable for civil damages.[i]

While the language of the statute is clear, there question has arisen, what happens when the emergency care physician is not providing health care for a direct fee, but rather works as an on-duty physician.

The Illinois Supreme Court holds that the Good Samaritan Act does not shield on-duty physicians who do not bill for their services, and on-duty physicians have the same standard of care regardless of whether they bill for their services. The issue arose in a case involving an on-duty emergency room physician, responding to a “code blue” for a patient with trouble breathing and swallowing. The doctor intubated the patient and opened the airway, and nevertheless the patient experienced permanent brain damage.[ii] The doctor working as an emergency room physician when the “code blue” was called for a patient on another floor of the hospital, whom the doctor had never previously met or treated.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court held in the case, the emergency room physician responding to the “code blue” for a hospital patient, the immunity from liability under the Good Samaritan Act did not apply because the doctor’s services were not performed “without fee” where the doctor was paid to work in the emergency room.[iii]

If the facts had been different, this court could have applied the Good Samaritan Act. Assume a different set of facts where the doctor was not on-duty, working as an emergency physician at the time he responded to the “code blue” for the patient on another floor, separate from the emergency room. Assume the same treatment was given, the doctor intubated the patient, who experienced permanent brain damage, there would have been a more likely chance the doctor may have been able to be clear of civil liability under the Good Samaritan Act.

As new events and occurrences give rise to litigation over health care liability, the courts will decide those cases and the health care law and litigation firm of Michael V. Favia and Associates will share those holdings.

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[i] Illinois Good Samaritan Act, Sec. 25 Physicians, 745 ILCS 49/25

[ii] Beckers Hospital Review, Illinois Supreme Court: Good Samaritan Act Doesn’t Shield On-Duty Emergency Physicians, by Ayla Ellison, Apr. 29, 2014.

[iii] Home Star Bank & Financial Services v. Emergency Care & Health Organization, Ltd., 2012 IL App (1st) 112321