The Supreme Court Examines Good Samaritan Immunity

WDC Journal Edition: Winter 2007
By: Paul E. David - Wendorff, Ellison & David LLP

In May 2006, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued its decision interpreting Wisconsin Statute § 895.48(1), commonly referred to as the Good Samaritan immunity statute.[i] Although the statute has been in its current form since 1977,[ii] no published decision has ever defined the application of the statute. Although nearly every jurisdiction has a so-called “Good Samaritan” statute, persuasive authority is problematic due to significant variations in the language and stated purpose of the statutes.[iii] The case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court presented an issue of first impression and, therefore, affords, for the time being, the only opinion defining the statute’s applicability.

I. Factual Background.

In Mueller v. McMillan Warner Insurance Company, 2006 WI 54, 290 Wis. 2d 571, 714 N.W.2d 183, the 19-year-old son of the Switlicks was operating an ATV with his girlfriend, Mueller, riding as a passenger. While driving through the woods, an accident occurred, resulting in injuries to both of them. Despite the injuries, the two were able to make their way back to the Switlick cabin where they were met by the Switlicks. Mueller was bleeding and vomited shortly after arriving.

Mueller proceeded into the cabin bathroom, wanting to lie down on the bathroom floor. The Switlicks persuaded Mueller to lie down in one of the bedrooms where they checked on her approximately every hour. After six to seven hours, Mueller responded inappropriately to some questions, following which, the Switlicks called for an ambulance. Mueller suffered serious continuing injuries.[iv]

Mueller sued the Switlicks claiming they were negligent in failing to convey her to a hospital, in preventing her from obtaining medical treatment, and in failing to seek help for her.[v] The Switlicks asserted Good Samaritan immunity in defense to the claims.

The circuit court dismissed Mueller’s complaint, ruling that Wisconsin Statute § 895.48(1), applied, affording immunity to the Switlicks. The court of appeals reversed the trial court in a published opinion.[vi]

II. Defining the Elements of Immunity.

The Good Samaritan statute provides 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.” The supreme court identified three elements that must be satisfied for Good Samaritan immunity to apply. These elements are: (1) Emergency care rendered at the scene of any emergency or accident; (2) The care rendered must be emergency care; (3) Any emergency care must be rendered in good faith.[vii] The supreme court resolved the case before it by establishing and applying definitions for “scene of any emergency or accident” and “emergency care.” The supreme court did not define the element of “good faith.”

Section 895.48(1), does not contain definitions for “scene of any emergency or accident” or “emergency care.” To define the terms, the supreme court relied heavily upon legislative history and the statute’s intended purpose. The supreme court initially established that the statute’s intended purpose was to “encourage individuals to provide emergency care to an injured person by immunizing the caregivers from common law liability if they fail to exercise reasonable care when rendering emergency care in good faith.”[viii] The supreme court then set about to establish definitions for the elements of the immunity that were consistent with the statute’s stated purpose.

A. Scene of Any Emergency or Accident.

In Mueller, the plaintiff traveled some distance from the scene of the accident or injury-causing event before receiving care. Based on the distance from the accident scene, and the passage of time that occurred while it took the plaintiff to travel this distance, an argument was raised that the care was not provided at the scene of any emergency or accident.

The supreme court determined that the scene of any emergency did exist under the facts of the case, concluding that the scene of any emergency follows the person in peril and in need of emergency care. “‘Scene of any emergency’ should ordinarily be interpreted to cover emergency care at a location where such care is needed.”[ix] The court stated further that, “The ‘scene of any emergency’ may follow the injured person.”[x]

The supreme court’s interpretation is consistent with the statute’s stated purpose. If the purpose of the statute is to encourage individuals to provide emergency care to an injured person, “scene of any emergency or accident” should be broad enough to encompass those situations in which the injured person first encounters the potential Good Samaritan. The anticipated desirable effect of intervention should not be limited by proximity to the injury-causing event. Good Samaritan interventions are of equal value at the immediate scene of the accident or injury as at some distant location.[xi]

B. Emergency Care.

A definition for “emergency care” presented the supreme court with greater difficulty. “Emergency care” is not defined in the statute and the parties to the appeal had difficulty presenting the court with useful and recognized definitions or delineations of “emergency care” from either a legal or medical perspective.

The defendants advanced an expansive definition for “emergency care” that would include essentially all of the acts the Good Samaritan utilized or omitted in the course of effecting the intervention. The plaintiff contended that there must be a difference between “emergency” care and other types of “care,” less the word “emergency” be rendered mere surplusage. The plaintiff argued that what defendants provided in this case was nothing more than first aid, monitoring care or babysitting activity, not entitled to immunity. The plaintiff also contended that emergency care must include a call to 911 or an attempt to transfer the victim to an emergency care center.

The supreme court acknowledged the difficulty presented in defining “emergency care.” “We cannot define ‘emergency care’ with a bright line rule because of the great variety of situations that may qualify as emergency care. We shall, however, attempt to provide a flexible, broad working definition of emergency care that is suitable for the present case and may be suitable for a multitude of other cases.”[xii]

The supreme court ultimately adopted a definition for “emergency care” that has a significant temporal component as compared to a substantive component. Emergency care is defined more so by when the intervention is conducted as compared to the acts utilized to effect the intervention.

Upon review of the statute’s history, the supreme court declared that the statute reflects a legislative purpose to encourage such services as are necessary to stabilize an injured individual’s health or impede an impending tragedy during the period before care can be transferred to professional medical personnel.[xiii] In light of this legislative purpose, the supreme court concluded that “emergency care” refers only to the initial evaluation and immediate assistance, treatment, and intervention at the scene of an emergency during the period before care can be transferred to professional medical personnel.[xiv]

In the case before the court, the decision resulted in the Switlicks being entitled to Good Samaritan immunity for their acts and omissions carried out during the initial evaluation and immediate assistance, treatment and intervention. After that, however, the intervention changed from “emergency care” to “non-emergency care” to which no immunity applied.[xv]

The point at which the intervention transitions from “emergency care” to “non-emergency care” is case and fact specific. However, the most significant factor in ascertaining the moment of transition is the period of time before which care could be transferred to professional medical personnel. This amount of time will be fact specific for each individual case.

C. Good Faith.

The supreme court did not directly address the element of good faith as it was not essential to resolving the dispute.[xvi] Defendants argued that the issue of good faith must focus on the motivation of the Good Samaritan in effecting the intervention If the compulsion to intervene is motivated by nothing more than a desire to help a fellow human being, certainly the element of “good faith” should be satisfied. Issues regarding burden of proof for “good faith” or lack thereof and a possible inference to assist in establishing the burden, will be topics for future cases.

III. Conclusion.

The issue of “scene of an emergency or accident” seems well established by the court’s decision. “Emergency care” on the other hand is in need of further clarification and may always prove to be elusive due to its fact specific nature. The supreme court clearly acknowledged its difficulty in defining the term.

One important issue that appears subject to further debate is one that arose in Mueller. That is, whether the decision to not call 911 or for other professional medical assistance is a decision subject to a negligence evaluation or entitled to Good Samaritan

[i]. Mueller v. McMillan Warner Ins. Co., 2006 WI 54, 290 Wis. 2d 571, 714 N.W.2d 183.

[ii]. See § 3, ch. 164, Laws of 1977.

[iii]. See Eric A. Brandt, Comment, Good Samaritan Laws – The Legal Placebo: A Current Analysis, 17 Akron L. Rev. 303 (1983) and Mueller, 2006 WI 54, n. 17.

[iv]. For facts of case, see generally, Mueller, 2006 WI 54, ¶¶ 9-15.

[v]. Id. at ¶16.

[vi]. Mueller v. McMillan Warner Insurance Company, 2005 WI App 210, 287 Wis. 2d 154, 704 N.W. 2d 613.

[vii]. Mueller 2006 WI 54, ¶23.

[viii]. Id. at ¶30.

[ix]. Id. at ¶31.

[x]. Id. at ¶32.

[xi]. For the opinion that the care received by Mueller was not at the scene of any emergency or accident see the court of appeals concurring opinion in Mueller. Mueller, 2005 WI App 210, ¶¶45-47 (Hoover, J., concurring).

[xii]. Mueller, 2006 WI 54, ¶ 36.

[xiii]. Id. at ¶45.

[xiv]. Id. at ¶46.

[xv]. See generally id. at ¶53.

[xvi]. Id. at n.4.