What's In Those Good Samaritan Laws, Exactly?
If you’re uneasy about the idea of being called upon to give CPR in an emergency situation, your worries are not entirely unfounded. There are things to worry about—including the fear of getting sued. The truth is, in our litigation-happy society, you can be sued for anything. The question is: will you win?
If you are delivering CPR in an emergency situation, it’s most likely you are protected by the law. That’s because all states have Good Samaritan laws that are designed to protect people who give CPR and other emergency help in good faith without the threat of a lawsuit.
However, no Good Samaritan law is airtight—and it’s a good idea to know what they say. Here’s an overview—with the caveat that we’re not lawyers and this article is not intended to be taken as legal advice, as well as the fact that Good Samaritan law can change at any time.
Good Samaritan laws vary by state
In general, you can never know the exact specifics about Good Samaritan laws applicable to you unless you do some research on the law in your state. Each Good Samaritan law varies on a state-by-state basis. While most are similar, there are a few significant differences. The following generalities, however, apply to the law in most states.
You need to be acting out of a selfless impulse
Simply put, Good Samaritan laws are there to protect people who selflessly jump in to help—without the expectation of a reward or accolades. They generally do not apply to paid medical or emergency rescue staff, as these people are getting paid for their services—not, from a legal standpoint at least, acting only out of the goodness of their hearts.
In some states, Good Samaritan protections may be revoked if you rescue someone and receive monetary reward for it—even if you received the reward after you provided the help and with no expectation of reward. The laws on this vary by state, but if you want to raise your chances of staying out of court or winning if you get dragged in, it’s best to refuse any and all monetary or other types of rewards for a rescue.
You may or may not need to have CPR certification
In some states, the only people covered by Good Samaritan protections are medically trained—including people with CPR certification. In other cases, Good Samaritan laws—or specific parts of them—are meant to apply only to people without medical training. In other states, everyone is covered by these laws.
Some states are more committed than others to encouraging bystander response to emergencies, which has been shown to boost survival rates for victims of cardiac arrest—even if the rescuer is not well trained and the CPR technique is not perfect, it is still better than nothing. This is not the case everywhere, however, and it’s always best to keep your CPR training up to date.
You do not have to be covered under Good Samaritan law to win a case
Depending on your state, the Good Samaritan laws may act to keep you out of court entirely—or make it easier for you to win in court. However, just because your actions weren’t covered under Good Samaritan law doesn’t necessarily mean you did the wrong thing—or that you won’t prevail in court.
You are not covered for something you are egregiously under-trained for
This is a bit fuzzy to define—and specific rules vary by state. However, while you may be covered under the Good Samaritan law for CPR you deliver even if you do not have current CPR certification, you most likely will not be covered if your actions are more extreme—for example, if you try to give a patient an improvised tracheotomy with nothing but a pocket knife and a ballpoint pen, and you are not a trained surgeon.
Most of the time, you do not have to provide CPR—even if you are certified
Some people stay away from CPR certification because they worry that they might be sued for not providing CPR if they have the training. But in actuality, you cannot be sued for failing to provide CPR in 49 states. In these states, it is your decision whether or not to provide CPR.
There is usually an exception for those in the profession, such as ambulance staff, EMT’s, doctors and nurses, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and others who have what the law defines as a “duty to act.” People who fall under this category are often required to provide CPR aid to people in the vicinity who need it, or to stop on highways and in other areas where there has been an accident to see if someone might need help.
In Vermont, everyone is required to provide what the law defines as “reasonable assistance” to someone in danger as long as it does not result in the rescuer putting themselves in physical danger, unless there is someone else providing that assistance. Those who are found to have stood by without helping someone in an emergency situation will be fined up to $100.
You need consent to provide CPR—but there’s a loophole
To legally provide CPR or other care, you need the patient to tell you it’s okay—technically. The loophole is that if the patient is impaired, they cannot legally give consent. And in cases where CPR is needed and every minute counts—chances are the victim will be unconscious or otherwise impaired during this time—rescuers are expected to assume consent rather than waiting for it to be given. Better to save a life now and ask permission later than to let someone die because they could not give consent.
You can never guarantee your actions will be protected by the Good Samaritan law. However, in most cases, if you are following your training and clearly acting in the best interests of the patient, the law will be on your side. In order to stay out of court, your best bet is to keep your CPR certification current, know the law in your state, refuse any reward for an act of rescue, and follow your training to the best of your ability in an emergency situation.