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Good Samaritan Helps Man on I-85 on Christmas Day

On Friday, we discussed the Christmas day accident on I-85 involving a man who suffered a heart attack while driving. The man was driving his car on I-85 North when his car ran into the median barrier. After the accident, a good Samaritan woman found the man slumped over in his car. Because the doors were locked, the good Samaritan used a baseball bat to break a window. She removed the man from the car and proceeded to give him CPR, while waiting for medical help to arrive. When the man was taken to the hospital, doctors determined that he suffered a heart attack at the time of the accident.

Friday’s post discussed the sudden incapacitation defense as related to the liability of a person who suffers a heart attack while driving. Today, we’ll look at the potential liability of a good Samaritan who delivers medical care and injures the person in the process. Just to be clear, there is no indication that the good Samaritan woman who stopped and gave CPR to the man on I-85 did any harm to the man or anyone else while providing care, but this is an issue that sometimes comes up in cases of good Samaritan help.

The North Carolina good Samaritan statute is found in G.S. 20-166(d), which states that

Any person who renders first aid or emergency assistance at the scene of a motor vehicle crash on any street or highway to any person injured as a result of the accident, shall not be liable in civil damages for any acts or omissions relating to the services rendered, unless the acts or omissions amount to wanton conduct or intentional wrongdoing.

North Carolina courts have explained the rationale of the Good Samaritan statutes as generally attempting “to eliminate the perceived inadequacies of the common-law rules, under which a volunteer, choosing to assist an injured person although having no duty to do so, was liable for failing to exercise reasonable care in providing the assistance.” This common-law rule would, in effect, discourage someone from providing assistance. The courts have also explained that "Good Samaritan statutes are generally designed to protect individuals from civil liability for any negligent acts or omissions committed while voluntarily providing emergency care."

A typical application of the good Samaritan statute would be a situation where a good Samaritan stopped to deliver CPR to an injured person and cracked the person’s rib in the process. Provided that the good Samaritan’s acts did not constitute wanton conduct or intentional wrongdoing, the injured person would not be able to hold the good Samaritan liable for his cracked rib - even if the good Samaritan was ordinarily negligent in providing care. This makes sense because we do not want to discourage people from providing care to others involved in a motor vehicle crash.

So then the question becomes what constitutes “wanton conduct or intentional wrongdoing” in providing “first aid or emergency assistance”? We can look to a North Carolina Court of Appeals case from 2011, Green v. Kearney, which examines this issue in the context of a volunteer emergency health care provider. North Carolina statute holds such volunteers to a similar standard as good Samaritans, making them liable only for injuries caused by “gross negligence, wanton conduct or intentional wrongdoing on the part of the person rendering the treatment.” (G.S. 90-21.14)

In Green, the plaintiff was in a car accident and suffered a serious head injury. The first emergency provider checked the plaintiff’s vitals and determined that the plaintiff was dead.  Upon the arrival of more emergency providers, the first provider asked them to verify that the plaintiff did not have a pulse. They did not. The medical examiner arrived and dismissed the observed movement of the plaintiff’s abdomen and chest as air leaving the body. The medical examiner later dismissed the observed twitch of the plaintiff’s eye as a muscle spasm. The plaintiff was brought to the morgue and put in a refrigeration cabinet in a zipped bag. It was not until almost 2 ½ hours after the accident occurred, when an officer wanted to reexamine the plaintiff’s body, that the plaintiff was removed from the refrigeration cabinet and zipped bag. At that time, the officer noticed movement in the plaintiff’s abdomen and emergency services were called. The plaintiff suffered permanent injuries.

The court stated that

An act or conduct rises to the level of gross negligence when the act is done purposely and with knowledge that such act is a breach of duty to others, i.e., a conscious disregard of the safety of others. An act or conduct moves beyond the realm of negligence when the injury or damage itself is intentional.

The court found that the actions of the emergency providers in Green did not rise to the level of willful and wanton conduct because there

the problem was defendants' lack of knowledge: they did not know that plaintiff was alive. Even if their lack of knowledge was caused by a negligent failure to conduct a sufficiently thorough examination to establish whether plaintiff was living or deceased, this is still ordinary negligence.  Plaintiff has not forecast any “intentional wrongdoing or deliberate misconduct” as to these defendants.

The court of appeals has also considered whether the good Samaritan statute can be used to limit a good Samaritan’s liability for his contributory negligence related to injuries caused by a third party. In Hutton v. Logan (2002), the plaintiff observed a car accident where another car had gone into a ditch. A car had already stopped to render assistance, and the plaintiff stopped her car to tell the driver of that vehicle that she would drive ahead and call 911. The defendant was following the plaintiff and ended up rear-ending the plaintiff. The defendant argued that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent by stopping her car in the middle of the road.

The plaintiff argued that “her conduct cannot constitute contributory negligence unless it was found to be reckless” under the good Samaritan statute. The court of appeals reviewed other good Samaritan statutes and found that “[t]he general concentration of these statutes is on insulating the rescuer from liability for negligence to the person rescued. There may be a difference of opinion as to which party is insulated from liability, but there seems to be no debate as to the party from whom they are insulated.”

Therefore, the court held that

N.C. Gen.Stat. § 20-166(d) insulates the rescuer from liability for ordinary negligence from the person rescued only. In light of the intent behind Good Samaritan statutes to remedy the gap left by the common law in allowing the person rescued to sue the rescuer, it does not appear reasonable that our legislature intended to provide a blanket immunity as to all persons other than the person rescued. Rescuers must stand on their own and defend suits maintained by third parties who were allegedly injured as a result of the rescuer's negligent conduct during the rescue attempt.

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