What Is the Purpose of Good Samaritan Laws?

A woman applying CPR on a man

 

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In a litigious society, there can be a reluctance to help out in emergency situations. Fear of liability for any misstep can paralyze even the most helpful good Samaritan.

In the United States, each state has laws or regulations to protect off-duty medically-trained personnel and the general public from liability during rescues or rescue attempts. Specifics about your state should be discussed with a legal expert or attorney from your area. As well, the 1998 Aviation Medical Assistance Act provides liability protection for a healthcare professional acting as a good Samaritan in an in-flight medical emergency.

A newer form of good Samaritan law protects those who call for medical assistance due to a drug overdose. These laws are now in place in most states, providing immunity from being charged with a drug-related offense or limiting the sentence, if charged.

Good Samaritan Laws 

Good Samaritan laws are meant to protect those who come to the aid of others for no other reason than kindness. Good Samaritan laws only help if the rescuer (or would-be rescuer) is acting without any expectation of reward. In other words, if you are getting paid to rescue then you aren't a good Samaritan. Paid rescuers are expected to do their jobs correctly and can be held accountable for mistakes.

In some states, good Samaritan laws only cover medically-trained rescuers, while other states extend protection to the general public.

Depending on the state, getting rewarded after the fact can also count as an expectation of reward. If you help someone at a car accident and then are rewarded monetarily or otherwise, you may be excluded from good Samaritan protection.

The good Samaritan concept is commonly applied in the courts, which means a case going that far may still be ruled in favor of the rescuer who was trying to help. What good Samaritan laws do for rescuers is to provide a get-out-of-court-free card. Unpaid rescuers may prevail in court with or without a good Samaritan law, but it's a lot cheaper if they don't have to go to court.

Always Do Your Best

The best way to protect yourself from possible liability when helping others is to always act on behalf of the victim. That may sound obvious, but if your motivation is to be a hero and not to help out a fellow human, then you risk making the types of mistakes not covered by good Samaritan laws.

Here are some good tips for staying out of court:

  • Take a CPR and first aid class.
  • Follow your training.
  • Use common sense.
  • Don't do anything you're not trained to do.
  • Get professional help for the victim.
  • Do not accept gifts or rewards.

Good Samaritan laws do not protect you from everything. It is human nature to make mistakes. Good Samaritan laws take this into account and protect helpful citizens if the mistakes made are reasonable.

What is Reasonable?

Since defining "reasonable" is so difficult—even those covered under the good Samaritan law may find themselves defending a lawsuit. One example is what happened to California's good Samaritan law. A woman pulled an accident victim from a car following an accident. She followed the typical tests: she didn't plan on getting any sort of reward and she acted in the best interests of the victim. Despite the fact that she should have been covered under the typical good Samaritan doctrine and definitely should have fallen into California's good Samaritan law, she was sued. The case in California led to a complete rewrite of California's Good Samaritan laws.

Usually, though, good Samaritan laws work just like they're supposed to. Most lawyers make judgments about when to file lawsuits based on an examination of their return on investment. Since the plaintiff doesn't usually pay upfront, the lawyer must decide to take the case on contingency. That means "reasonable" is defined by the lawyer. Believe it or not, that's good, as it means those lawsuits that will most likely lose in court won't ever get there.

Following these tips might help you stay out of bad situations even as you help others get out of theirs. However, this is not intended as legal advice. Research the laws of your state and talk to legal counsel to clarify them in your circumstances.

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  2. Jakubowski A, Kunins HV, Huxley-reicher Z, Siegler A. Knowledge of the 911 Good Samaritan Law and 911-calling behavior of overdose witnesses. Subst Abus. 2018;39(2):233-238.