Good Samaritan laws are designed to protect bystanders who step in to help someone who’s injured, ill, or otherwise in danger. For example, if you perform CPR on an unconscious person in an attempt to revive them, but your honest efforts result in further injury, you’ll typically have some level of protection from civil liability.
But these laws don’t protect every good Samaritan in every situation, and not every state offers the same protections. Our guide below allows you
What Is a Good Samaritan Law?
The term “Good Samaritan Law” refers to a type of liability protection for people who come to the aid of someone facing a sudden injury or illness. It doesn’t apply to people working in a paid, professional capacity (e.g. emergency services professionals responding to a call) but to bystanders acting simply out of the goodness of their heart.
The term refers to the Biblical Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story tells of an abused, beaten traveler left on the side of the road. The traveler is left for dead by multiple passersby, but he’s eventually treated by a passing Samaritan. Jesus uses the parable to illustrate what it truly means to “love your neighbor.”
In practice, a good Samaritan law can look something like this: You’re working at the office when you see someone collapse and go into cardiac arrest. The office has an automated external defibrillator (AED machine) that you can use to try and restart the patient’s heart, but you’re hesitant to use it because you’re not a trained rescue professional.
After just a moment’s hesitation, you decide to use the AED because it’s your best chance for saving the person’s life. Regardless of the outcome, you’re protected by your state’s good Samaritan law. You acted with the best of intentions and to the best of your ability.
Why Good Samaritan Laws Exist
The purpose of good Samaritan laws is to encourage people to step in and help when their actions may save a life. The fear of litigation or even prosecution can be a huge deterrent to someone witnessing a medical emergency.
But sometimes it’s not enough to call 911 and wait for emergency services to arrive. Even in the best-case scenarios, EMS professionals can take 8 to 15 minutes to arrive on the scene. In many cases, they can take more than half an hour.
Every minute matters in a cardiac arrest event. With each minute that passes, the patient’s prognosis declines by about 10%. The actions of one good Samaritan can mean the difference between a full recovery and complete organ failure. Good Samaritan laws give people the assurance that they can step in and help without fear of legal reprisal.
Which States Have a Good Samaritan Law in Effect?
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some type of good Samaritan law on the books. Of course, the specifics of the law can vary tremendously from one state to the next.
A majority of states, including California and New York, protect all citizens acting in good faith and not for monetary compensation. However, states like Kansas and Missouri only protect trained healthcare workers from civil liability—and not the general public.
Some states get extremely specific about the type of training required (be it Red Cross training, American Heart Association training, or even intermediate medical training) to qualify a rescuer for this type of immunity.
There is one good Samaritan law that has been enacted at the federal level. The 1998 Aviation Medical Assistance Act (AMAA) protects healthcare workers who come to the aid of patients while in flight. This particular law does not protect laypeople.
The Limitations of Good Samaritan Law
Good Samaritan law only applies when the bystander provides “reasonable assistance” to the person in need. This term is somewhat ambiguous, but most states follow a general good Samaritan doctrine to determine whether a rescuer (or attempted rescuer) is protected under the law. The core tenets of a good Samaritan doctrine are as follows:
- The care provided was performed in direct response to an emergency
- The care provider was not responsible for causing the injury
- The care provider did not act in a grossly negligent or reckless manner
- The care provider did not have a duty to treat
“Duty to treat” means that the care provider already has a pre-existing responsibility to provide care. This may be because they’re being paid to respond to an emergency (EMTs, physicians, etc…) or because they’re required by law to administer care in a given scenario.
Some states also require that the rescuer obtain the permission of the sick or injured person when possible. This won’t work in the event of a cardiac arrest, but it is possible if the person is just experiencing severe chest pains or is bleeding due to an injury. In instances where the patient is unconscious but immediate intervention is needed, you’ll usually be protected by a legal principle known as implied consent. In other words, the victim’s consent is implied given the emergency circumstances.
The other important consideration is “What constitutes gross negligence?” Gross negligence is generally defined as a failure to act with the same level of competence and care that an average person of sound mind would have demonstrated under the same circumstances.
So if you turn on an AED and follow the voice instructions to the best of your ability, you’re acting with a reasonable level of care. However, if you just pound frantically on someone’s chest and break one of their ribs because you have no idea how CPR works, you could be deemed negligent.
It’s also important to note that good Samaritan laws do not protect professionally trained healthcare workers working in an official capacity. In other words, a paramedic may still be deemed liable for the outcome of a patient treated at the scene of an emergency.
Good Samaritan Law and Minors
For the most part, the same good Samaritan protections apply when you’re coming to the aid of someone under 18 years old, but with one important distinction. Rather than getting the consent of the minor, you must get the consent of a parent or guardian if they’re available.
If the parents are unavailable but immediate intervention is required, you should still be protected by implied consent. Once again, the specifics of the law can vary from state to state, but the law will usually be on your side as long as you provide reasonable assistance.
Good Samaritan Law & Drug Overdose
A new type of good Samaritan law—sometimes called a 911 good Samaritan law or drug overdose immunity law—has emerged in recent years, and it’s intended to encourage people to seek help during a drug overdose. While the terms of the law vary from state to state, the idea is that drug users and witnesses are granted some level of immunity when calling 911 in regard to a perceived drug overdose.
Forty states and D.C. currently have this type of law on the books. The following states do not offer this type of explicit protection yet:
- South Carolina
As an example, California’s 911 good Samaritan law (AB 472) reads as follows:
“It shall not be a crime for any person who experiences a drug-related overdose, as defined, who, in good faith, seeks medical assistance, or any other person who, in good faith, seeks medical assistance for the person experiencing a drug-related overdose, to be under the influence of, or to possess for personal use, a controlled substance, controlled substance analog, or drug paraphernalia, under certain circumstances related to a drug-related overdose that prompted seeking medical assistance if that person does not obstruct medical or law enforcement personnel.”
The general goal is the same as with any good Samaritan law: It’s the belief that this type of immunity can increase the number of lives saved by encouraging more people to seek help without fear of reprisal.
What Are Bad Samaritan Laws?
Some legislators have pushed for so-called “bad Samaritan laws” to compel people to act in an emergency. Whereas a good Samaritan law protects people who act of their own volition, a bad Samaritan law holds people accountable for not providing help in an emergency. This type of law is sometimes called a “duty to rescue” law.
Currently, only three states have this type of law on the books: Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Three other states, Hawaii, Washington, and Wisconsin, have laws requiring bystanders to at least call 911 upon witnessing a medical emergency.
Do Good Samaritan Laws Protect AED Operators?
If you maintain an automated external defibrillator on behalf of your home, business, or public facility, and you are required to use the device in an emergency, your level of immunity will depend on your training and the laws in your state.
If you’re using the device outside of your professional obligations, such as in the home or in any instance where the law doesn’t hold you accountable for others’ safety, you may be protected by good Samaritan law.
If you’re acting in an official capacity (e.g. you’re using an AED because you’re legally required to maintain AED/CPR training and administer treatment while on the job, such as while coaching a high school athletic team), you may not be immune to civil liability.
There are numerous exceptions, of course, as some states specifically provide protection to all AED operators. In Illinois, for example, the law dictates that “any automated external defibrillator user who in good faith and without fee or compensation renders emergency medical care involving the use of an automated external defibrillator in accordance with his or her training is not liable for any civil damages as a result of any act or omission, except for willful and wanton misconduct, by that person in rendering that care.” (§ 745 ILCS 49/12).
The following states have similar protections on the books:
- New York
- South Dakota
If you own and operate an AED but you’re not sure how the law would affect you in an actual emergency, the best thing you can do is sign up for AED program management. Your program manager will ensure that your AED meets all state and federal requirements, including physician oversight, training, and device maintenance. Your program manager will help you to achieve total compliance and ensure that you understand your rights and responsibilities in the event of an emergency. It’s the easiest way to know that all of your ducks are in a row.
Will Good Samaritan Law Protect You?
When a sudden emergency strikes, you might not have time to research the nuances of state law and determine the pros and cons of taking action. If you don’t know CPR, no lifesaving medical device is available, and you’re not sure how to help, the most important thing to do is call out for help and call 911.
If you do have the tools or knowledge to help someone, and you take action calmly and responsibly, you will most often be protected from civil liability. You might even save someone’s life.
For more information, refer to the statutes in your state.