Imagine that you are walking or driving along, and you come across a car accident scene. The accident just happened, and no official responder—like an ambulance, the police, or the fire department—has arrived yet. You want to help, but are afraid that, in today's litigious society, someone might file a personal injury lawsuit against you if you do something wrong. What should you do? And what if you are a licensed health care provider? Can you help an injured person without fear of a lawsuit?
Realistically, your fears aren't entirely unwarranted. Injured people have actually sued well-intentioned passersby and health care providers who have tried to help them. Luckily, over the years, lawmakers in all 50 states have passed what are called "Good Samaritan" laws in an effort to shield people from potential liability for simply trying to help at an accident scene.
These laws differ from state to state; some states protect only licensed health care providers, while other states protect anyone who is trying to help.
Standard Good Samaritan laws protecting health care providers read something like this:
"Any health care professional under the laws of this state who in good faith lends emergency care or assistance without compensation at the place of an emergency or accident shall not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions performed in good faith, so long as any act or omission resulting from the rendering of emergency assistance or services was not gross negligence or willful misconduct."
Many states require health care providers to offer treatment voluntarily and without expectation of payment to be protected by Good Samaritan laws.
Good Samaritan laws don't completely shield health care providers from liability. They don't apply to providers giving aid in a reckless way or providers who intentionally make a victim's injuries worse. They also typically don't apply when the initial emergency or injury was caused by the person volunteering aid.
Learn more about negligence.
Standard Good Samaritan laws protecting people who aren't licensed health care providers read something like this:
"Any person who is not a health care professional who is present at an emergency or accident scene and who: (1) Believes that the life, health, and safety of an injured person or a person who is under imminent threat of danger could be aided by reasonable and accessible emergency procedures under the circumstances existing at the scene thereof; and (2) Proceeds to lend emergency assistance or service in a manner calculated in good faith to lessen or remove the immediate threat to the life, health, or safety of such a person, shall not be held liable in civil damages in any action in this state for any act or omission resulting from the rendering of emergency assistance or services unless the act or omission was not in good faith and was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct."
So, in order to qualify for protection under this type of statutory language, the Good Samaritan has to reasonably believe that the victim was in immediate need of emergency help in order to avoid serious harm or death, and then has to provide help in good faith. And again, the Good Samaritan law is no defense to a charge of gross negligence or willful misconduct.
But you should be aware that some states limit the protection of Good Samaritans who are not licensed health care providers. Some states do not provide protection to a lay Good Samaritan unless the Good Samaritan has a current first aid or life-saving certificate from a qualified organization like the Red Cross or the American Heart Association.
Because the laws can differ significantly from state to state, if you are seriously concerned about whether your state's laws protect you from liability if you should choose to help an accident victim, you should look up your state's law or contact an experienced lawyer in your state for advice.