Friday, September 16, 2016

Ohio Supreme Court clarifies the meaning of the state's Good Samaritan statute

About two weeks ago, the Ohio Supreme Court issued an important opinion interpreting the state’s “Good Samaritan statute,” a phrase that, as I am sure you know, refers to statutes to provide immunity to people who cause injuries while trying to help others under circumstances where there is no affirmative duty to do so.  The case is called Carter v. Reese and you can read the opinion here.

Although most, if not all, states have enacted Good Samaritan statutes, their terms vary considerably from state to state. In some, they apply only to certain members of the medical and other related professions. This is so because while the goal of the statute is to encourage people who don’t have a duty to help to try to help, the public policy is to encourage only those who know what they are doing when it comes to providing emergency medical help. In other states, on the other hand, the statutes are more general and apply to everyone. In those states it has been decided that it is better to encourage people to help even if they are not trained to do so. Two other issues about which states differ are the definition of an “emergency” and the definition of the type of “care” involve.

Asked to interpret the statute in Ohio, which states that “No person shall be liable in civil damages for administering emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency. . . , for acts performed at the scene of such emergency, unless such acts constitute willful or wanton misconduct,” the Court explained,
This case presents our court with two separate questions involving the legislative intent behind Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute. First, what did the General Assembly intend by using the phrase “no person shall be liable in civil damages”—did it intend to include only health care professionals who administer emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency, or, more broadly, to include any person who administers emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency? 

Second, what did the General Assembly intend by using the phrase “administering emergency care”—did it intend to limit emergency care to only the administration of medical care, or, did it intend to include all forms of care administered at the scene of an emergency?
The Court’s conclusion:
Ohio’s  Good  Samaritan  statute  applies  to  any  person  who administers emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency including but not limited to health care professionals. Moreover, the phrase “administering emergency care” in the statute is not limited to medical acts and includes rendering medical and any other form of assistance to the safety and well-being of another when the result of an unforeseen combination of circumstances calls for immediate action.  
Two Justices (O’Connor and Lanzinger) agreed with the majority’s holding that the statute applies to any person, but dissented as to the definition of “emergency” as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances.” They argued that the definition of an “emergency” should be “sudden events or circumstances that require urgent or immediate attention or action,” regardless of whether the events were foreseeable.