The Good Samaritan Law
In order to encourage physicians to provide emergency medical assistance, the leglslature has adopted a Good Samaritan law to exempt physicians from financial liability for negligence when providing emergency care. The history of the Good Samaritan Law in Illinois may be traced from its introduction in 1965 as an amendment to the Medical Practice Act (where it remains today), through its evolution and court interpretations, and finally to its 1997 enactment into an additional and free-standing statute entitled the “Good Samaritan Act.” The current language protecting physicians is as follows:
Any 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 the care, be liable for civil damages. (745 ILCS 49/25)
It may sound simple enough, but the law granting you civil immunity jumped through some hoops getting to where it is now. For one thing, it started out in 1965 limited to a physician “who, in good faith, provides emergency care without fee at the scene of a motor vehicle accident or in the case of nuclear attack…” The impetus behind the bill obviously was the desire to protect doctors rendering aid at car accidents. By 1974 the accident scene or nuclear attack limitation was gone, only to be replaced by “in good faith and without prior notice of the illness or injury. . .”. As you might imagine, that language became a fulcrum with which plaintiffs tried to pry open the immunity in physician malpractice cases. The appellate courts tended to interpret it in favor of doctors until finally, in 1998, the phrase was removed by the legislature.
What is an emergency?
The Good Samaritan law, therefore, applies in your office if an emergency should arise for which the physician treats the individual with no fee. What is an “emergency” in that context? There is no rule defining “emergency” under the Act, but an appellate court last year referred to an “unforeseen, unexpected combination of circumstances presented which require the need for immediate action, assistance or relief”. Rivera v. Arana, 322 Ill. App. 3d 641 (1st Dist. 2001). The courts have indicated a liberal interpretation of what constitutes an emergency. More recent cases have discussed the issue of whether the doctor has charged or not charged a fee in good faith, i.e., whether the doctor’s decision to forego the fee was made for the purpose of invoking the liability exemption in the Good Samaritan law. Courts have ruled that this issue is to be determined on a case-by-case basis by a jury.