In March of 2013, a resident at a nursing home—an 87-year-old woman—stopped breathing. The nurse on the premises told a 911 dispatcher that she would not perform CPR, because of the facility’s rules against it. Unfortunately, the woman died before emergency response could arrive.
This tragic event has raised a lot of questions—not least about policies nursing homes and other assisted living facilities might have against giving out life-saving treatment. But it also raises the question of whether or not, if you jump in to perform CPR—whether or not you’re a medical professional—you can actually get sued.
It’s a fairly timely question. The American Heart Association consistently supports and promotes CPR classes for people not in the medical profession—so when someone has a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital or medical facility, there will be a higher chance of a bystander stepping in to perform lifesaving CPR while the victim waits for emergency response teams to arrive. Studies show that brain death begins within four to six minutes after a cardiac arrest, and those who do not get CPR within that time are extremely likely not to survive. Getting CPR immediately—and if you’re not in a hospital, that usually means from a bystander—could mean the difference between life and death.
But with occurrences like this in the news, will bystanders be scared off providing lifesaving CPR in the first place? And is it actually a possibility that you could get sued for trying to save someone’s life? Here’s a look at the issues.
First, whether or not you can be sued will vary depending on where you are and who you are. The 2000 Federal Cardiac Arrest Survival Act grants those who administer CPR or use an AED immunity from civil charges, except in instances of willful misconduct or gross negligence.
Good Samaritan laws exist on a state-by-state basis. Mostly, they provide at least some protection for those who perform CPR or use an AED. Some states actually require you to step in if you know CPR or, in some cases, if you are a medical professional. In Vermont, for instance, requires bystanders to give “reasonable assistance” or face a $100 fine.
Generally, however, Good Samaritan Laws are there to protect bystanders who perform CPR. Mostly, you are required to ask permission before performing CPR if a person is not already in your care. If they cannot reply, then consent is implied.
You will not be protected by Good Samaritan laws if you try to go outside your area of training—if you try to perform an impromptu tracheotomy to save a choking victim, for example, and you are not a trained surgeon. If your behavior has been judged to be reckless or negligent, or if you leave the victim after initially providing care, you could also be sued.
If someone has a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order that specifies lifesaving care must not be provided in case of a sudden cardiac arrest or another health crisis, you must do as it says and avoid giving CPR—if you know about it. If you didn’t know about it, you generally can’t be prosecuted for giving lifesaving CPR anyway. But what about first aid? Medical professionals and lay-rescuers often ask if they can be sued for first aid? Generally the answer is the same, you can't be prosecuted for giving first aid to someone in need and you are not required to do so if you feel uncomfortable about it. Be sure to practice good faith and common sense if you ever end up in a situation where someone might need CPR or first aid.
Medical professionals who give CPR to people with a DNR order can potentially be in trouble—if they know about the DNR. The issue of giving CPR to someone with a DNR is complicated, however. In some states, DNR orders are only valid inside a hospital setting; outside the hospital, they do not apply. This means that an emergency response team can legally give someone CPR even if they have a DNR order. In other states, however, emergency medical responders are allowed to abide by DNR orders when responding to emergency calls in the victim’s home.
In addition, in some states, patients who move from one healthcare facility to another are required to tell their medical teams about the DNR. Usually, medical professionals are not required to abide by a DNR order they do not know about.
The truth is that you can be sued for anything, at any time. The question is not whether you can be sued for performing CPR; the question is whether you can be successfully sued. The answer in most cases is no; Good Samaritan laws in most states protect bystanders from legal consequences if they act prudently and in keeping with their training. Hopefully, widely publicized cases of people being refused CPR will not keep non-medical citizens from getting certified for CPR—and providing lifesaving care if it is required.