Good Samaritan Laws: Can You Be Sued When Trying To Help?

Figure out if Good Samaritan laws apply to your situation with this guide. We’ll explain the nuances of this law in all 50 states.

Many of us hear stories about horrible accidents and injuries and wonder what we would do if we saw someone injured in front of us. Would we help? Would we freeze?

What if we help, and then the person dies or gets injured even worse? In today’s climate of litigation and personal injury lawsuits, even a well-meaning bystander might think twice about helping.

State legislatures realize this problem. Across the country, they have designed laws to address it. These laws, called Good Samaritan laws, are designed to encourage people to help others in need without the fear of a lawsuit if the person being helped gets further injured or dies.

The good news is that if you fit the legal requirements, you have what is called a “Good Samaritan defense” that insulates you from liability.

The Good Samaritan statutes of the various states can differ significantly. For example, some protect a wide variety of people who assist at an accident. Others only protect emergency medical care that comes from licensed, qualified doctors or emergency medical technicians (EMTs). It can also make a difference if you were called to the scene of the injury or accident.

This article will introduce the concept of Good Samaritan laws and examine some of the differences between states. It will also give examples of these laws and provide some insight into their finer points, so that you can understand the issues and risks involved.

What Is a Good Samaritan, Anyway?

Good Samaritan mural

The parable of the Good Samaritan comes from the Bible. In it, a Jewish man is viciously beaten and left for dead by the road.

After two other men pass by without helping the injured man, a man from Samaria comes by and cleans his wounds, paying for him to stay at an inn to recover.

The unexpected help from a Samaritan, who would normally be hostile toward Jewish people, identifies him as a good and neighborly person.

The modern concept of the Good Samaritan is somebody who comes upon an injured or ill person in an emergency situation and takes action to help that person. You should be aware, though, that the moral concept of a Good Samaritan can be very different from the legal one. Sometimes, good intentions are not enough to legally protect you.

1. The Basic Legal Rule

Under most Good Samaritan laws, you’ll be protected from a lawsuit for civil damages if you provide emergency assistance to someone without expecting to be paid. You are still protected even if you make basic, good faith, careless mistakes in your care, because the law wants to encourage you to help when you can.

Good Samaritan statutes generally need an emergency in order to be effective. Despite this requirement, many statutes do not expressly define what is an emergency. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School states that an emergency is generally understood as a “sudden, unforeseen happening requiring action to protect lives or property.”

For the purposes of many of these laws, you should note that an “emergency” triggering the statute must happen at the scene of an accident or, at the very least, outside of a hospital. This requirement stops hospitals and doctors from using Good Samaritan laws to avoid medical malpractice lawsuits.

Let’s say you see someone choking and attempt to give them the Heimlich maneuver, even though you haven’t been trained in how to use the maneuver. Despite your efforts, the person chokes and dies before you can help them.

Or, let’s say you attempt to use cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to get someone breathing, even though you’re certified. Again, the delay caused by your inability to properly perform the procedure results in the injured person’s death. Depending on the state you are in, these facts can put you in legal danger of civil liability.

2. The Exceptions To the Rule

The general rule is that if you’re honestly doing your best to help someone in an emergency, you’ll probably be protected from a lawsuit, even if the person you tried to help doesn’t survive.

There are exceptions to the general Good Samaritan rule that apply to someone not acting in the best interest of the emergency victim.

The most common exceptions:

  • Intentional misconduct
  • Gross negligence

Intentional misconduct is not protected because if you hurt somebody on purpose, you do not deserve to be protected from a lawsuit.

Gross negligence is a reckless disregard for safety — you know that you will likely hurt the person but you don’t care. Good Samaritan laws don’t protect this behavior either. While we want to protect people who help, we want them to be as careful as possible while doing so. This is different from ordinary negligence, which may be careless but is an honest mistake.

States That Protect a Layperson Good Samaritan

Injured worker lying on the ground while his coworker calls for help

While all 50 states have some version of a Good Samaritan law, not all of them protect anybody claiming to be a rescuer.

The majority of states, like California, have very broad statutes that protect any “person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency.”

Good faith is a legal term that means an honest belief or purpose. Someone who acts in good faith is doing their best and acting without ulterior motives. You have to be genuinely trying to help the injured person to the best of your ability.

In these states, you don’t need any special training to receive Good Samaritan protection from a lawsuit. You just have to act in good faith and be at the scene of the emergency.

States with these broader laws include:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Note that two states, Oklahoma and Vermont, have laws that appear to require bystanders to help emergency victims.

Laws requiring a layperson to assist others in an emergency are rare, and it’s hard to see how the states could penalize a bystander for not helping. Nonetheless, these states also grant a Good Samaritan defense for good faith assistance.

States That Protect the Medically Trained

Paramedics doing CPR to a female victim of a car accident

A handful of states have narrower Good Samaritan laws. These laws are aimed at making sure that any emergency medical services given to injured people are provided by trained medical personnel, like medical doctors or EMTs.

Some of these states also give legal protection to law enforcement and Good Samaritans who are trained or certified in first aid or CPR.

These states include:

  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri (with the exception of interventions to prevent suicide, which are protected when done by any person)
  • South Dakota (though any person is “immune from civil liability” in connection with using or not using an automated external defibrillator, or AED)

No matter where you live, you should be aware of the most current state laws applicable to emergency assistance. Knowledge and preparation now can save a great deal of trouble later.

Help Your Fellow Citizens With Good Samaritan Laws

As fellow citizens of the United States, we should strive to treat others as we expect to be treated. In some rare cases, this may mean rendering emergency care to an accident victim. You could save a life.

Most states have Good Samaritan laws, so you are protected from lawsuits for civil damages when providing emergency assistance, even when you make honest mistakes.

In addition to traditional Good Samaritan laws, more than 40 states have enacted Drug Overdose Immunity Laws that protect those who call 911 or administer Naloxone to a person overdosing on opiods, like heroin.

If you have recently been a Good Samaritan and are worried that you may suffer legal consequences, contact a qualified attorney in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.

Talking to a lawyer is also a good idea if you were injured by grossly negligent medical assistance, or if the person who was supposed to help you hurt you instead. In all situations, be cautious and aware of your legal rights and responsibilities.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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