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Good Samaritan Laws: Know What Is Expected Before You Help

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All states, including Colorado, have some type of law that seeks to encourage medical professionals to act as “good Samaritans” to injured people by offering certain protections to those rendering aid. These laws are meant to explain the legal protections and ethical obligations that apply to someone who offers help.

Good Samaritan Laws

Most Good Samaritan laws follow the legal concepts behind ordinary negligence and gross negligence:

  • Ordinary negligence means that the Good Samaritan offering aid did not act as a reasonable health care provider would have under similar circumstances.
  • Gross negligence generally means that not only did the Good Samaritan not offer the accepted standard of care, but his actions rose to the level of being willful, wanton, or malicious.

Most Good Samaritan laws provide immunity from civil damages for personal injuries, including death, that result from ordinary negligence, but do not usually protect against allegations of gross negligence.

Colorado Good Samaritan Laws

Colorado Good Samaritan law protects physicians and others from civil liability when they render assistance to a person who is not presently their patient at the scene of an accident, emergency, or health care institution. To be entitled to this protection, the Good Samaritan cannot receive compensation and cannot have been grossly negligent when the aid was given. Colorado law defines gross negligence as an action committed recklessly with conscious disregard for the safety of others.

Additionally, Colorado Good Samaritan law also protects certain licensed individuals from liability when they offer on-field or sideline care to someone who was injured while engaging in a competitive sport. As long as they were not compensated, grossly negligent, or engaged in willful and wanton conduct, these individuals include:

  • Physicians
  • Osteopaths
  • Chiropractors
  • Nurses
  • Physical therapists
  • Podiatrists
  • Dentists
  • Optometrists
  • Certified emergency medical providers

Colorado also provides a degree of immunity from criminal charges or mitigation of sentences for individuals seeking to help themselves or others experiencing a drug overdose. The basis of this law is many overdose deaths can be prevented if those who overdose, witness an overdose, or are with someone who has overdosed are shielded from prosecution if they call 911.

Duty and Good Samaritan Laws

The concept of duty is central to Good Samaritan laws. To be protected under a Good Samaritan law, a physician must not have a pre-existing duty to provide care to the patient. A physician has a pre-existing duty if:

  • The victim is a current patient
  • The physician is contractually obligated to care for the victim
  • An on-call agreement exists that requires the physician to provide services

State laws differ regarding the location where the Good Samaritan renders the emergency care. While the Good Samaritan laws in most states apply only to care provided outside a hospital setting, Good Samaritan laws in California and Colorado expressly protect physicians who provide such care in a hospital setting.

In most states, there is no legal obligation to provide Good Samaritan care, and if aid is rendered, it needs to be for stabilization only. To be afforded protection under such laws, the victim must not object to aid being rendered, and implied consent exists only if the victim lacks the capacity to give consent. The odds of being sued for malpractice as a result of providing Good Samaritan care are extremely low, and the fear of litigation should not be a factor when deciding whether or not to help, should the situation present itself.

Do Good Samaritan Laws Really Influence Behavior?

Although some may argue that Good Samaritan laws attempt to force altruism, in reality such statutes probably have little effect on how people really behave. True Good Samaritans will most likely continue to help others without needing to be reminded of their moral and civic duty, while “Bad Samaritans” will probably continue to ignore this obligation and continue on their way.

Image by Keoni Cabral.

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