A man was admitted to the hospital through the emergency room and was later transferred to the intensive care unit where he was diagnosed with epiglottitis. Three days later he began having labored breathing and pain on swallowing. A code blue was called. The only doctor working in the emergency room at the time responded to the code blue and attempted to intubate him. The patient suffered a severe and permanent brain injury.
The hospital billed the man for supplies used during the code blue, but not for any physician's services. The emergency room physician’s employer was the exclusive provider of emergency room physicians at the hospital, and the emergency room physician was under contract with his employer. His employer paid the emergency room physician by the hour, and he was not allowed to bill patients directly.
The contract between the emergency room physician and his employer stated that in addition to his responsibilities in the emergency department, he may, in dire emergencies, i.e., cardiorespiratory (or impending) arrest, render service to any patient, as long as there is not an emergency department patient requiring his immediate presence, and only until the patient's personal physician had assumed ongoing care. The hospital’s code blue policy stated that the emergency room physician should respond to all code blues in the hospital; direct the code blue team in CPR, defibrillation and cardioversion and medication therapy; and intubate the patient.
The guardian of the estate of the disabled person sued the emergency room physician and his employer for negligence. The Cook County Circuit Court concluded that the emergency room physician was immune from liability pursuant to section 25 of the Good Samaritan Act (the Act) (745 ILCS 49/25 (West 2010)) and granted summary judgment to the emergency room physician and his employer. The Appellate Court reversed and remanded reasoning that the Act was meant to apply to volunteers, not to those who treat patients within the scope of their employment and are compensated for doing so. The guardian filed a petition for leave to appeal, which the Supreme Court allowed.
As a matter of first impression, the Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed holding that the emergency room physician did not treat the man “without fee” for purposes of the Good Samaritan Act, and thus the Act did not provide the emergency room physician with immunity from liability for negligence.
The court held that the term “fee” in the Act was ambiguous and could refer either to a patient being billed or a physician being paid. The court looked at other aids for construction to determine legislative intent and concluded that the Act was meant to apply only to those who volunteer their services. For example, during the legislative debates on the various amendments to the statute, the legislators who spoke out about the statute's purpose clearly indicated that its purpose is to promote volunteerism. Physicians who responded to emergencies because they were paid to do so did not need the incentive to act that was at the very heart of Good Samaritan statutes. The court concluded that the phrase “without fee” was ambiguous, and giving it a construction that includes a doctor's compensation would ensure that the legislature's intent was effectuated rather than thwarted.
The emergency room physician did not treat the man “without fee” for purposes of the Good Samaritan Act, and thus the Act did not provide the emergency room physician with immunity from liability for negligence, even though the man was not billed for the physician's services. The emergency room physician was fully compensated for his time that day. He responded to the code blue not because he was volunteering to help, but because it was his job to do so.
The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed the appellate courts reversal of the trial court’s grant of the emergency room physician and his employer’s motion for summary judgment.
See: Home Star Bank and Financial Services v. Emergency Care and Health Organization, Ltd., 2014 IL 115526, 2014 WL 1096956 (Ill., March 20, 2014) (not designated for publication).
See also Medical Law Perspectives, February 2013 Report: Emergency Medical Services: Liability and Immunity for Medical Rescue
See also Medical Law Perspectives, December 2012 Report: When Urgency Leads to Errors: Liability for Emergency Care