Are doctors protected from a malpractice lawsuit when providing emergency treatment at an accident site?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Doctors who arrive at an accident site are generally called “first responders” and are given high protection against suits. Most of the time, a first responder at the scene of the accident will be a member of an ambulance crew, a firefighter, or an emergency medical technician, but if a doctor is also among this initial team, they will get the same protections.

The reason for this legal protection is that in these types of emergency situations, first responders must react quickly, and the professional expectation to guard against making mistakes decreases for the sake of fast and immediate attempts at emergency treatment. By contrast, doctors and nurses in emergency rooms are not given the same amount of protection against potential lawsuits as first responders.

Furthermore, “Good Samaritan” laws protect volunteers who assist at the scene of an emergency. This includes a volunteer doctor or anyone else who did not have a duty to the victim but who volunteers their help. If a doctor volunteers their services at the scene of an emergency, they are held to the more lenient Good Samaritan laws rather than the usual medical malpractice laws.

Some Acts of First Responders May Not Be Protected

While state laws vary on the specific levels of protection given to first responders, most states do not protect first responders against intentional acts, recklessness, or gross negligence.

In the case that a first responder is not protected, courts generally find them financially liable for damages caused. Furthermore, some courts hold that the strong protections given to first responders apply only to accidents and not to all emergencies. For example, a doctor responding to the scene of a car accident may have more legal protections than a doctor responding to a heart attack after they misdiagnosed the condition. The doctor who responds to the heart attack will, in some states, be held to the normal malpractice laws. This means that if the doctor is found negligent, they will be liable for the victim’s injuries caused by the substandard care.

For volunteer doctors to be protected by a Good Samaritan law, many states require the emergency treatment to take place outside any medical facility, and there must be no essential medical equipment around to assist the doctor. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Some states afford legal protection in a medical facility if the volunteer doctor did not have a duty to help the patient. For example, if a surgeon jumps in when the initial team of surgeons is at risk of losing the patient, Good Samaritan laws in these particular states could protect this new surgeon.

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