Thursday, March 20, 2014

Illinois Supreme Court interprets Good Samaritan Statute

The Illinois Supreme Court announced today an interesting decision interpreting the state’s Good Samaritan Statute. The question for the court was essentially whether the statute provides immunity to a physician who provides emergency services while working in a hospital when the physician had no doctor-patient relationship with the plaintiff and was not an employee of the hospital. The injury occurred when an emergency room physician responded to a Code Blue outside the emergency room area of the hospital. The physician claimed immunity under the Good Samaritan Act. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claim, but the appellate court reversed and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed.
Interpreting the policy behind of the statute and its text, the supreme court said that the purpose of the statute is to encourage physicians to volunteer to help under circumstances where they don’t have a duty to do so. Because the physician in this case, although employed in the emergency room, was expected to respond to Code Blues at the hospital as part of his job, the court decided the statute did not apply to him.
To resolve the issue, the court discussed two different lines of authority that had interpreted the statute in the past. The statute states, in part, that physicians will be immune from lawsuits if the services are not provided “for a fee” and in emergency circumstances. Based on that language and some cases, the defendant argued that the statute grants immunity as long as the physician does not bill the patient. In response, the plaintiffs argued that the notion of the “fee” can refer either to a patient being billed or a physician being paid in general.
The supreme court agreed with the plaintiff’s interpretation. Agreeing with a case previously decided by the Federal District Court applying Illinois law, the court explained that the statute was originally designed to “encourage physicians fearful of malpractice suits to stop and render aid to those injured in automobile accidents” and to encourage people to volunteer their time and talents to help others. For this reason, the court concluded that the cases cited by the defendants had been wrongly decided because they thwarted the “unmistakably obvious legislative intent.”
In the end, the court agreed with the appellate court’s conclusion that the defendant did not provide his services to the plaintiff “without fee.” He was fully compensated for his time that day, and it is clear that he responded to the emergency not because he was volunteering to help but because it was his job to do so. Thus, the statute did not apply to him.
You can read the opinion here and you can go here and here for commentary on the issues written before the opinion was issued.
UPDATE (3/23/14): The Appellate Strategist just published a review of the opinion here.

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