In Carter v. Reese, Slip Opinion 2016-Ohio-5569, the Ohio Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, recently addressed the limits on liability under Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute, Ohio Revised Code §2305.23, and held that 1) the statute applies to any person, not only health care professionals, who administers emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency; and 2) the phrase “administering emergency care” as used in the statute includes rendering medical and any other form of assistance to the safety and well-being of another when the result of “an unforeseen combination of circumstances calls for immediate action.”

Plaintiffs sued after Dennis Carter sustained injuries when he asked Larry Reese, Jr. to move a tractor-trailer that had pinned Carter’s leg between the trailer and a loading dock and Reese sought immunity under the statute, which states in relevant part: “[n]o person shall be liable in civil damages for administering emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency . . . for acts performed at the scene of such emergency, unless such acts constitute willful or wanton misconduct.

Carter was a truck driver for S & S Transport and he pulled a tractor-trailer into the loading dock at AIC Contracting, Inc. to deliver an empty trailer and to pick up another. After attaching the second trailer, he pulled his truck about four to six inches away from the loading dock, unlocked the trailer brake, and locked the tractor brake so that the tractor wheels could not move. As he pulled himself onto the loading dock to close the trailer door, he slipped, and his leg became wedged between the loading dock and the trailer. He did not feel any pain but he could not free himself and he began yelling for help and banging on the loading dock door. About 10 minutes later, Reese arrived and offered to help. Carter told him to “get in my truck, move it forward about a foot, . . . but whatever you do, don’t put it in reverse.” Reese climbed into the cab of the truck and put it in neutral before realizing that he did not know how to operate it. Carter alleged that Reese “revved up” the truck three times before he heard the air brake release, and almost immediately, the trailer rolled backwards and broke his leg. Unfortunately, the break was so severe that Carter’s leg had to be amputated above the knee and Carter and his wife eventually sued Reese based on negligence and did not allege any willful or wanton conduct on Reese’s part. Reese affirmatively defended based on the Good Samaritan statute and moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court and affirmed by the appeals court. The appeals court held that the statute applied to anyone, not only healthcare professionals, that assists at the scene of an emergency as long as they meet the statute’s requirement that the acts are not willful or wanton. The Ohio Supreme Court accepted the case in order to review Carter’s claim that the statute “is limited in scope and application to health care responders providing emergency medical care or treatment to another individual at the scene of an emergency and who otherwise satisfy the statute.”

In response, Reese argued that the statute applied to any person regardless of profession and that if the legislature had intended to limit the statute’s application it could have used the phrase “health care professionals” and that limiting it to those rendering emergency medical care or treatment would require the court to add the word “medical” to the statute. The court determined that it had to answer two questions with regard to the legislature’s intent: 1) did the legislature intend to limit the statute’s application to only medical professionals; and 2) by using the phrase “administering emergency care” did it intend to limit the application to only medical care or to extend it to all forms of care administered at the scene of an emergency?

The court noted that at common law, there was no duty to assist another but if assistance was given, the assistor had to act reasonably. In order to encourage medical professionals to assist in an emergency without fear of being sued, state legislatures, beginning with California in the late 1950s, began enacting Good Samaritan statutes. Since that time, the majority of states have extended immunity to lay people. The court reviewed many of those statutes and their specific language and determined that the Ohio statute applies to anyone, medical and non-medical personnel alike, that administers emergency care at the scene of an emergency, not just emergency medical care. Based on that ruling, it determined that Reese had administered emergency care and that his actions were not willful or wanton and therefore, he was entitled to immunity, thereby affirming the appeals court’s ruling.

This interpretation of the statute should be welcomed by anyone having to defend a non-medical professional whose attempts to assist in an emergency end with unfortunate consequences due solely to negligence.

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