By John DiMotto
Section 895.48(1) of the Wisconsin statutes sets forth that:
any person who renders emergency care at the scene of any emergency
or accident in good faith shall be immune from civil liability for his or her
acts or omissions in rendering such emergency care. This immunity does
not extend when employees trained in health care or heal care
professionals render emergency care for compensation and within the
scope of their usual and customary employment or practice at a hospital
or other institution equipped with hospital facilities, at the scene of any
emergency or accident, enroute to a hospital or other institution equipped
with hospital facilities or at a physician's office.
This statute is commonly referred to as a "Good Samaritan Law" and the intent of this law is to encourage people, particularly people with medical training and experience, to take action in an emergency situation to provide needed medical attention by providing them with immunity from civil, legal action.
One of the first appellate cases to discuss Wisconsin's Good Samaritan Law was Mueller v. McMillian Warner Ins. Co., 287 Wis.2d 154 (Ct. App. 2005). The decision addresses the critical words of the statute, giving them their ordinary meanings:
1) "Scene" is the "place of the occurrence or action" or "locale."
2) "Emergency" means "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action" and "a sudden bodily alteration such as is likely to require immediate medical attention."
3) "Accident" means "a chance ... sudden event or change occurring without intent or volition ... an unexpected medical development esp. of an unfavorable or injurious nature."
4) "Care" is a general term whose definitions range from "suffering of mind" to "serious attention" to "custody...charge, supervision, management."
5) "Good faith" is a term which complicates the matter. It can mean "a belief in one's legal title or right." But it can also mean "absence of fraud, deceit, collusion, or gross negligence." It can be measured subjectively or objectively.
In the decision, the court reflected that the legislative intent of the law, which was first enacted for professionals in 1963, was to encourage those with medical training to respond to emergency situations outside of the professional environment. In 1977, the legislature expanded immunity to include any person who rendered emergency care in good faith at the scene of an emergency or accident.
While the statute grants immunity from liability, it does not prevent the filing of a lawsuit against a purported Good Samaritan. A lawsuit can still be filed and the purported Good Samaritan must still defend against the lawsuit.
In Clayton v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co., 305 Wis.2d 766 (Ct. App. 2007) the court held that if a lawsuit is filed and the party being sued claims the protection of the Good Samaritan law, the lawsuit can continue if there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether emergency care was rendered, if the emergency care was provided at the scene of the emergency, or if it was provided in good faith. Normally, a motion for summary judgment will be filed by the purported Good Samaritan to determine if there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the conduct.
The Wisconsin legislature has provided a safeguard for medical professionals and ordinary individuals who take action to help others in emergency situations by providing immunity from liability in the creation of 895.48(1). It is a legislative declaration that people who help people should have not suffer the indignity of being punished for their acts of kindness.