Responding to Emergencies
Let’s say that while driving on the highway you witness a traffic collision. You pull over and see that the victim is trapped inside his car and his car is leaking gasoline. Others have pulled over, as well. Perhaps someone has already called 9-1-1. Yet no one has made a move to rescue the trapped man. What do you do?
You have probably heard that a severely injured person should only be moved by professionals such as the paramedics, but in this case the car could explode. If you do not move him, he could die immediately. If you do, you could die with him. Why hasn’t someone else gone to rescue him? And what if you manage to rescue him from the vehicle, but when carrying him to safety, you exacerbate his injuries? What if he sues you for pain and medical expenses?
The Protections of Florida’s Good Samaritan Law
Florida’s Good Samaritan Law was designed to address these fears. The main precept of the law is that if you act in good faith to rescue someone and exercise due care, you cannot be civilly liable for any damage to them you may have inadvertently caused. The original purpose of Good Samaritan laws across the nation was to reassure medical professionals that they would not face malpractice suits for trying to help accident victims outside of proper hospital settings, but this type of legislation has gotten broader and more complex over the past 60 years. We are now at a point where many would-be Good Samaritans are not sure when it is safe to help anymore. Let’s answer that question.
First of all, there is no general duty under Florida law to help a victim. In our example above, if you and all the other bystanders had merely stood by, no one would have gone to jail.
The Limitations of Florida’s Good Samaritan Law
However, once you make a move to help, you owe the victim a certain level of care. The theory behind this is that another person may have intervened if you had not, and so by getting involved, you are promising that you will do what any reasonably prudent person should do. If you fail to exercise the care you owe the victim and instead behave in a careless way that hurts the victim, you are civilly liable for damages.
Secondly, if the victim objects to your help or, in the inverse, if the victim compensates you for your help, you are no longer protected by the law. A Good Samaritan’s assistance must be offered “gratuitously,” (meaning without compensation) “in good faith,” and “without objection of the injured victim or victims,” in the words of the Florida Good Samaritan Act.
Health Care Providers
Thirdly, if you are a healthcare provider, the standards are different. Whereas the average bystander incurs liability only if he or she has been unreasonable and imprudent, a health care provider only incurs liability if he or she shows “a reckless disregard” for the consequences of his or her actions in relation to the life or health of the victim. The law further defines “reckless disregard” as “conduct that a health care provider knew or should have known … created an unreasonable risk of injury … and such risk was substantially greater than [mere negligence.]” Simply put, as long as the health care provider is not reckless, he or she is immune to lawsuits that would arise from his or her mistakes made in emergency situations.
The immunity also applies if a doctor happens to be in a hospital minding her own business when a patient that is not hers suffers an emergency and needs her immediate help. She can help even though she has no then-existing doctor-patient relationship. As long as she doesn’t engage in “conduct that is willful and wanton and would likely result in injury so as to affect the life or health” of the patient, she will not be liable for civil damages. However, this only covers treatment for the emergency situation. If the doctor continues to treat the patient for other non-emergency problems, even ones indirectly related to the emergency, she risks incurring liability.
Finally, the law even protects veterinarians who stop to help injured animals at the scene of an emergency or any injured animal adjacent to a roadway. As long as the veterinarian proceeded in a reasonably prudent manner, the veterinarian is safe from lawsuits.
Nonetheless, the law leaves a number of important questions unanswered due to somewhat ambiguous terms. What is good faith, exactly? How do we determine what a reasonably prudent person should do in any given emergency? Wouldn’t most reasonable and prudent people be shocked and frightened in such situations, perhaps too frightened to help? If you are sued for doing a good deed, how do you defend yourself? This is why you need good personal injury lawyers to help you.