Pennsylvania has enacted a “Good Samaritan Law” which aims to protect certain individuals responding to an emergency situation. The goal behind this statute is obvious, people (and in many instances trained people) should not be discouraged by the threat of a lawsuit from using their skills in an emergency.
For example, if a physician, while attending the movies, responds to the call of “is there a Doctor in the house?”, he or she will not be liable for civil damages unless he or she is not acting in good faith or unless he or she harms someone intentionally or by his or her gross negligence. Although what constitutes gross negligence is a hard (and necessarily subjective) standard to define, it is normally said to be a “want of even scant care” or “an extreme departure from ordinary care.” For comparison purposes, an individual can be liable for being careless while driving down the road if he or she causes an accident, but a physician, nurse or other health care provider who happens upon that accident would have to be very, very careless in their care in order to be found liable. That is about the best definition that can be provided in a short article like this one.
Another medically related class of individuals who have heightened protection from civil liability are individuals using heart defibrillators. They also are only liable if their acts intentionally cause harm or if their gross negligence causes harm.
Other classes of volunteers who receive similar protections are veterinarians, people acting in civic organizations like town-watches, and people who aid victims of crimes.
One of my first tasks as a lawyer was to advise a volunteer fire company that was worried about liability for breaking down doors when responding to emergency calls. Someone, probably an insurance salesman pushing greater coverage, had informed the company that there was a substantial risk of liability to the company under these circumstances. Common sense and a jury would normally stand in the way of such liability, but for purposes of this article I note that, in addition to other available immunities, the Good Samaritan Law provides to volunteer firefighters the same broad “sovereign immunity” as that provided to public employees.
– Rod Fluck