Illinois Bar Journal

May 2014Volume 102Number 5Page 214

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Good Samaritan Act doesn’t shield on-duty emergency doctors

The Good Samaritan Act protects doctors who volunteer in emergencies from liability, not on-duty emergency room doctors who don't bill a particular patient, the Illinois Supreme Court rules.

Doctors are held to the same standard of care when they treat patients at medical facilities whether or not they bill a patient for a procedure, the Illinois Supreme Court held recently.

The court, in a unanimous ruling written by Justice Thomas, said that Illinois' Good Samaritan Act could not be used as a liability defense by an emergency room physician who was sued for negligence after he attempted to intubate a patient who subsequently suffered permanent brain damage.

A Cook County trial judge had granted the doctor's motion for summary judgment, but an appellate court panel reversed. The Illinois Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, upheld the appellate court. Home Star Bank & Financial Services v. Emergency Care & Health Organization, Ltd., 2014 IL 115526.

The issue: doctor compensation, not patient billing

The doctor was the only physician in the emergency room at Provena St. Mary's Hospital on August 25, 2001, when a code blue was called for a patient who was having trouble breathing and swallowing. Because the patient was in the care of another physician who was not at the hospital at the time, and because the patient was not billed for the medical treatment rendered by the emergency room physician, the doctor argued that he could not be held liable for any allegations of medical malpractice brought by the patient's guardian.

The Good Samaritan Act provides, in part, that "[a]ny 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 care, be liable for civil damages."

The case turned not on whether the patient was billed, but whether the doctor was paid, which he was, the court noted. The physician in this case was in fact paid for his employment. Doctors may not hide behind the Good Samaritan Act by simply failing to bill a patient whom they believe may sue them for negligence, the court said. The Act was meant to protect those who volunteer, not those who are paid while working in a medical facility, the court said.

"[The doctor] was fully compensated for his time that day, and it is clear that he responded to the emergency (a code blue) not because he was volunteering to help but because it was his job to do so," the justices said in their ruling. "[The doctor] testified that it was his responsibility to respond to code blues. Moreover, it is clear from both the agreement that [Emergency Care & Health Organization ("ECHO")] had with the hospital and the agreement that ECHO had with [the doctor] that ECHO physicians were required to comply with hospital policies, and the hospital's written policy made clear that emergency room physicians were to respond to code blues."

Restoring the Act to its original intent

Keith A. Hebeisen, an attorney at Clifford Law Offices who represents the plaintiff in this case, said, "The impact [of the court's ruling] is to restore the Act to its original clear intent - to protect only true good Samaritans, i.e., those who have no obligation at all to volunteer to do a good deed without compensation.

"A valid good Samaritan defense in a hospital would be a doctor who is walking by a room, hears a call of distress, and goes in to help resuscitate a patient," Hebeisen said. "The doctor is not being paid and had no obligation to help. Or, a doctor who stops on the side of the road to help someone who has been injured in a car accident. Or, helping a guy who is having a heart attack on a plane, or rushing to help a person who fell into the lake and almost drowned."

Hebeisen said some appellate courts have ruled the other way, protecting doctors from negligence claims if they failed to bill the patient who filed suit against them.

Robert Park of Rock Island, a litigator at Califf & Harper, PC, said doctors do not routinely use the good Samaritan defense. "It is the exception for a doctor to render professional services without a fee, so the good Samaritan defense is not available to most medical malpractice defendants.

"The Home Star Bank & Financial Services case is not likely to have a big impact on medical malpractice filings or insurance premiums," Park said. "Physicians who render treatment in a medical setting - in a hospital, clinic, or medical office - will be held to the standard of care for similar doctors in similar circumstances.

"The good Samaritan law will only apply in the unusual case where a doctor happens upon and renders care without charge to a person that is ill at a public place or someone who is the victim of an accident or crime - where the doctor is seeing the patient in a non-medical setting, such as on the street, in a theater, at a public gathering, or at the scene of a crime or accident. From my recollection, the law was passed because physicians claimed they were afraid of getting sued if they stopped to render aid when they came upon, for example, a motor vehicle collision," Park said.

Janan Hanna is a Chicago freelance writer and a licensed attorney. A former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, she writes for numerous news organizations.

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