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Appellate Court Limits the Application of the Good Samaritan Act

By Chris Galanos

The Good Samaritan Act bars negligence actions against any physician who, in good faith, provides emergency care without fee to a person. For years, Illinois consistently held that unless a physician billed specifically for the emergency care services provided, he did not charge “a fee” as contemplated under the Good Samaritan Act. Whether the Good Samaritan Act also protected a physician who doesn’t bill his patient, but rather is paid by the hour to be at the hospital, such as a physician staffing the emergency department, had not been considered—until now.

In Home Star Bank vs. Emergency Care & Health Organization, Ltd., an emergency room physician, Dr. Murphy, responded to a “code blue” for a hospitalized patient. The individual was not a patient in the emergency room at the time of the code blue. The patient claimed injury due to the alleged negligence of Dr. Murphy in responding to the code blue. Dr. Murphy asserted that he was immune from liability under the Good Samaritan Act because he provided emergency care for the patient and that neither he, nor his employer, billed the patient for the services provided during the code blue. In response, the plaintiff argued that Dr. Murphy did not provide the emergency care “without fee” as required by the Act because, as an emergency physician working in the emergency room, it was his job to respond to the code blue, regardless of where in the hospital the patient was located, and that he was paid hourly for his services.  Dr. Murphy acknowledged that as soon as he was notified of the code, he went to treat the patient and asserted that it was part of his job at St. Mary’s to respond to a code.

The Illinois Appellate Court found that the term “without fee” not only refers to the situation where a patient is billed for the specific services a physician provides, but also encompasses any situation where a physician is paid. In short, the court found that “fee” is capable of being understood as the patient being billed or the physician being paid. The Court stressed that a primary purpose of the Act was  provide protection from liability for the “generous and compassionate acts” of the citizens of Illinois who volunteer the time and talents to help others.  Because Dr. Murphy was compensated for his work at the Code Blue, he had not rendered services as a volunteer “without fee” and was therefore not entitled to Good Samaritan Act protection.

The Home Star Bank decision is still under appeal, this time to the Illinois Supreme Court.   A final answer to the question of what is meant to render care “without fee” within the meaning of the Good Samaritan Act will be resolved, one way or the other, in the coming months.

Originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of Quinn Quarterly