Oral Argument Preview: Interpreting Ohio’s Good Samaritan Statute. Dennis Carter v. Larry Reese, Jr., et al.

Update: On August 30, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of this argument here.

On January 5, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of Dennis Carter v. Larry Reese, Jr., et al., 2015-0108. At issue in the case is whether R.C. 2305.23, Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute, provides immunity to a lay person attempting to provide emergency assistance to an injured party at the scene of an accident.

Case Background

On April 24, 2012, Appellant Dennis Carter, a tractor-trailer driver, delivered an empty trailer to a loading dock in Fairfield, Ohio. After switching the empty trailer with a new one, Carter pulled the rig forward slightly so he could close the back door on the trailer. While he locked the tractor brake, he failed to engage the trailer brake. Therefore, when he tried to pull himself onto the loading dock with the assistance of the trailer, he slipped and his right leg became stuck between the loading dock and trailer.

Carter screamed for help for about ten minutes before Appellee Larry Reese Jr. heard him from across the street. Upon Reese’s arrival, Carter—unable to actually see Reese—directed him to move the truck forward, and whatever he did, not to put it in reverse. Carter then heard the truck being revved up several times, and then the sound of the air brake being released. Within seconds, the rig rolled backwards and crushed Carter’s leg. After screaming in pain and bleeding profusely, Carter told Reese to call 911. Reese took off before the ambulance arrived, but was later identified as the man who tried to help Carter.

When the paramedics arrived, the rig was properly moved, and Carter was freed. But by this time, Carter had lost a considerable amount of blood and had to be taken to the hospital by air care. There, his right leg was amputated above the knee.

Subsequently, Carter and his wife sued Reese for failing to use reasonable care when operating the rig. The Butler County Common Pleas Court granted Reese’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that R.C. 2305.23, Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute, applied and protected Reese from any liability because his actions did not rise to the level of willful or wanton misconduct.

In a split decision, the 12th District affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Reese based on the Good Samaritan statute. In the majority opinion authored by Judge Hendrickson and joined by Judge Piper, the appeals court rejected Carter’s argument that the Good Samaritan statute is limited to protecting health care professionals rendering emergency medical care. According to the majority, Carter’s argument was based purely on dicta, by which it was not bound. Instead, the majority held that the Good Samaritan statute applies to any person, not just health care professionals, who administers “emergency care,” medical care or otherwise so long as the other requirements of the statute are met and the acts are not willful or wanton misconduct.

Judge Ringland, however, dissented, stating he would have reversed the grant of summary judgment because when read in context, the Good Samaritan statute only applies to emergency medical care or treatment. According to Judge Ringland, Reese did not even provide care or treatment and was thus not protected by the statute.

Key Statutes and Precedent

R.C. 2305.23 (No person shall be liable in civil damages for administering emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency outside of a hospital, doctor’s office, or other place having proper medical equipment, for acts performed at the scene of such emergency, unless such acts constitute willful or wanton misconduct.)

Briere v. Lathrop Co., 22 Ohio St.2d 166 (1970) (While there is no general duty to help, a good Samaritan who nevertheless comes to the aid of another is under a duty to exercise reasonable care in rendering the aid.)

Butler v. Rejoin, 9th Dist. Summit No. 19699 (2000) (In order to be covered by the Good Samaritan statute, one must be providing emergency medical care or treatment to another individual.)

Hamisifar v. Baker Concrete Constr., 1st Dist., Hamilton No. C-970228 (1998) (described the scope of the Good Samaritan statute as “absolving health-care providers from liability under certain emergency circumstances.”)

Held v. City of Rocky River, 34 Ohio App.3d 35 (8th Dist. 1986) (emergency situation existed where firefighter had been pinned down by a continuous stream of rushing water and off-duty firefighter came upon the scene and dragged the pinned firefighter out of the stream to safety, allegedly injuring him in the process; the off-duty firefighter thus rendered “emergency care” to the allegedly injured firefighter for purposes of the Good Samaritan statute.)

 Primes v. Tyler, 43 Ohio St.2d 195 (1975) (held that Ohio’s “guest statute” was unconstitutional.” In a footnote, the court also noted that the guest statute shared the same objective as the Good Samaritan statute, which was the “promotion or preservation of hospitality.” The court went on to explain how the Good Samaritan statute provides protection to persons “rendering medical treatment during the exigencies of an emergency.”)

State v. Boggs, 89 Ohio App.3d 206 (4th Dist. 1993) (the reality of appellate practice is that this court, and others, frequently rely on Supreme Court dicta for resolution of issues. Any court which disregards the Supreme Court’s discussion of certain issues merely on the basis that was not carried into the syllabus would be treading on dangerous and unstable ground.)

Wachendorf v. Shaver, 149 Ohio St. 231 (1948) (In the absence of a definition of a word or phrase used in a statute, the words are to be given their common, ordinary, and accepted meaning.)

Carter’s Argument

At common law there is no duty to rescue or protect another person. But a person who does assume such a duty must do so properly; if not, the rescuer can be found liable for failure to exercise reasonable care. This common law rule survives the enactment of the Good Samaritan statute.

In regard to the Good Samaritan statute, Carter argues that Reese should not be protected by it because Reese is not a health care responder and did not administer medical care. Agreeing with the dissenting opinion from the 12th District, Carter asserts that when read in context and construed according to rules of grammar and common usage, the Good Samaritan statute is limited to immunizing those providing emergency medical care or treatment. In support of this argument, Carter cites a number of cases in which the Good Samaritan statute was at least tangentially discussed and described as protecting persons rendering “medical” treatment during the exigencies of an emergency.

Additionally, Carter notes that the legislature amended the Good Samaritan statute in 1977 in order to clarify the immunity status of firefighters and police officers. Since this amendment occurred two years after the Primes case in which the Supreme Court of Ohio interpreted the statute as applying to persons rendering medical care, in an emergency, had the legislature disagreed with this interpretation, it could have then amended the statute to include laypersons, but did not, and has not since.

In the alternative, Carter argues that even if the Good Samaritan statute applies to any person, medical or otherwise, it does not provide immunity to Reese because there wasn’t an emergency, or at least creates triable issues of fact on this issue. While Carter concedes that he was stuck, he also contends that he was not in any pain or in need of medical assistance until Reese moved the truck and crushed his leg. Further, Carter claims that Reese did not provide him with any care, let alone emergency care, and so the Good Samaritan statute fails to immunize him for that reason as well.

Reese’s Argument

Reese argues that the 12th District’s decision should be affirmed because he was entitled to statutory immunity based on the language of the Good Samaritan statute and the cases that have interpreted or applied the statute.

Reese rebuts Carter’s argument that the Good Samaritan statute only applies to health care professionals by pointing to the plain language of the statute which states, “[n]o person shall be liable…”. Noting that the legislature used “health care professional” four statutes down the list in R.C. 2305.234, “Immunity for Volunteer Health Care Workers, Professionals Facilities, and Nonprofit Referral Organizations,” Reese asserts that the legislature could have likewise used the term in the Good Samaritan statute but chose “person” instead. According to Reese, this demonstrates the legislature’s intent to protect all people under the Good Samaritan statute and not just a limited class.

Again applying the standard rules of statutory construction, Reese counters Carter’s argument that the Good Samaritan statute only protects persons administering emergency medical care or treatment. Again, stressing the importance of the legislature’s decision not to include the word “medical,” Reese states that the court should not read the word into the statute.

Finally, Reese argues that by attempting to free Carter from the trailer, he was providing emergency care and, thus, protected by the Good Samaritan statute. Just as the firefighter was pinned from the water stream in Held, Carter was pinned by a trailer and should likewise be immune from any alleged negligence like the rescuer in Held.

Carter’s Proposed Proposition of Law

The trial court committed reversible error in granting Appellees’ motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals committed error in affirming the judgment, because the protection afforded under the Ohio Good Samaritan statute, R.C. 2305.23, is limited in scope and application to health care responders providing emergency medical care or treatment to another individual at the scene of an emergency who otherwise satisfy the statute.

Student Contributor: Danielle List

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