Nurses and The Good Samaritan Law
During a series of June 2020 protests in Denver, a group of volunteers assembled to treat injuries caused by tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. The helpers included various off-duty medical professionals, including nurses. Several volunteers recount being injured while caring for victims.
There are countless similar stories of witnesses voluntarily providing emergency care. We call them good Samaritans: those who see a need and risk their own well-being to care for others.
Good Samaritan Laws
The term “good Samaritan” comes from the biblical parable of a traveler who was robbed, beaten, and left on the side of the road to die. While others passed by, a man from Samaria stopped to help him. He applied ancient “first aid” and brought him to a place to heal, covering all expenses.
In modern language, a good Samaritan is “anyone who renders aid in an emergency to an injured or ill person.” If the person experiences further injury as a result of the aid being rendered, the state’s Good Samaritan law often protects the helper from liability.
Good Samaritan laws vary from state to state, but common features include:
- Consent: A person must consent to receiving a rescuer’s help.
- Implied consent: If the person is unconscious or incapable of making decisions on their own behalf, rescuers may act as if consent has been given.
- Reasonable level of care: If a rescuer believes an action should be taken that is outside their scope of practice (such as emergency surgery), they should not perform that action.
- Compensation: Services provided by a rescuer must be completely voluntary. The good Samaritan may not require or accept compensation.
Good Samaritan laws may differ in certain aspects, including the following areas:
- Untrained care attempt: If a rescuer provides medical aid without official training to do so (for example, a lay person performing CPR without certification), the rescuer may be liable for damages that occur.
- Medical Professionals: Physicians, nurses, firefighters, and EMTs are protected in most states by Good Samaritan laws. In other states, they may be liable because of their profession.
Imminent Peril: In some states, if a rescuer provides unnecessary aid that results in the further injury of a victim, the rescuer may be liable. For example, if a victim is trapped in a vehicle, they are not in imminent peril unless other factors further endanger them, like a fire. In this case, removing the person is not necessary and could result in further injury.
Duty to Assist
Good Samaritan laws can apply to two groups:
- People who see an emergency and do not provide aid to a victim
- People who provide aid and fail to save the victim, or unintentionally cause further injury to the victim
In most states, people who do not provide any aid to a victim—passers-by—are not legally responsible for whatever happens to the person. And given the risks of litigation, it makes sense that sometimes people will be afraid to stop and help.
But as medical professionals, are RNs and nurse practitioners obligated to help people in medical distress despite the risk of litigation?
Legal Responsibility as an RN or NP
This dilemma came up in court for a nurse and a doctor. They had been voluntarily staffing a first-aid tent at a festival when they were informed of an attendee who was experiencing a life-threatening allergic reaction. The doctor left the tent to assist. The nurse stayed behind to monitor the tent. Unfortunately, the man passed away.
The widow sued both the nurse and the doctor. She claimed “as healthcare providers…[the defendants] had a pre-existing duty to render emergency medical care.”
Courts concluded that as volunteers, the nurse and the doctor were under no legal obligation to assist—and that if they did, they were not liable for the results of their efforts.
This effectively puts trained medical professionals on the same level as an untrained citizen, protecting both equally regardless of their decisions in the face of an emergency.
One exception: If a victim is a pre-established patient of the medical professional, the professional is legally obligated to provide emergency care, even outside of the regular care environment.
Moral Responsibility as an RN or NP
If asked what they would do in the face of an emergency in a non-work setting, very few medical professionals would choose to walk away without helping. Even if they’re not on the clock—even if they lack the resources they would have in a medical setting—they consider it a violation of their calling to avoid helping someone in need.
As one nursing journal says, “[E]ven if you have no legal duty to [voluntarily help someone in need], it is generally thought that a nurse has an ethical and moral duty to provide assistance.”
This is why every nurse and registered nurse practitioner must be familiar with the Good Samaritan laws in their state. Compassion and conscience may require them to help in an emergency, but they should be aware of what actions are or are not protected in case a lawsuit comes up.
Good Samaritan laws are in place to protect you during lawsuits. But it’s not that simple: litigation takes years of emotional toil, time, and finances—even if you win.
There are two steps you can take to protect yourself from liability when helping at the scene of a crime:
Know the Good Samaritan laws in your state
Since 1959, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of Good Samaritan laws.
These laws may specifically mention medical professionals, methods of aid (e.g. AEDs), exceptions for family members, certain certifications (e.g. first aid certification), and may contain other clauses that may be relevant.
Learn the Good Samaritan laws in your state so you can learn to evaluate an emergency situation properly, helping others while protecting yourself.
Invest in Insurance
Protect your finances by enrolling in a quality insurance plan that will cover claims, assist you in seeking legal help as necessary, and other expenses.
There are several elements to consider when shopping for RN insurance and nurse practitioner insurance:
- Find a company that specializes in insurance for nurses. NOW Insurance has 20 years of experience protecting medical careers.
- Get a plan that covers exactly what you need for your specialty. Don’t pay for what you don’t need.
- Any insurance company you become involved with should know best practices for modern issues, such as treating patients in a COVID-19 environment.
Nurse insurance won’t just make sure you’re protected as an emergency volunteer.
It’s well known that fatigue and digital errors can lead to mistakes in the care environment. Nurses and NPs regularly work 16-hour shifts. Even the most competent nurse will sometimes make mistakes, especially during a global health crisis, and sometimes this can lead to serious consequences.
We hope you never fall into a legal situation that puts your medical career on the line. But if you do, know that NOW Insurance has your back with an affordable premium and a $0 deductible.