What’s On Their Minds: 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.

“No good deed goes unpunished.” (Attributed by some to Clair Booth Luce, by others to Oscar Wilde)

On January 5, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard 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 Reese to move the truck forward. Reese climbed into the cab. The parties disagree about whether Reese did in fact move the truck—Reese said he did not do so because he realized he did not know how, and that Carter was already injured before he arrived. Carter says he heard the truck being revved up several times, and then the sound of the air brake being released, causing the truck to roll backward, crushing his leg. Reese called 911, and left before the paramedics arrived. Carter was freed by a qualified truck operator under the supervision of the paramedics, and airlifted to the hospital where his leg was amputated above the knee.

Subsequently, Carter and his wife sued Reese for failing to use reasonable care when operating the rig. The trial 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. The majority rejected Carter’s argument that the Good Samaritan statute only applies to health care professionals rendering emergency medical care. The majority held that the statute applies to any person who administers any emergency care, so long as the other requirements of the statute are met and the acts are not willful or wanton. The dissent reads the statute as applying only to those rendering medical care or treatment, and that Reese did not even provide any care or treatment, and was thus not protected by the statute. Read the oral argument preview of the case here.

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.)

 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.”)

At Oral Argument

Arguing Counsel

Robert A. Winter, Jr., Ft. Mitchell, Ky. For Appellants Dennis and Mary Carter

Katherine A. Clemons, Markesbery & Richardson Co., LPA, Cincinnati, for Appellee Larry Reese, Jr.

Carters’ Argument

When Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute was first enacted in 1963, the preamble to the bill clearly stated that its purpose was to provide immunity to physicians and nurses providing emergency treatment.  That remains the legislative intent for this statute, despite any amendments.  When the statute was amended to included police officers and firefighters, if the statute was meant to cover all persons, this amendment would have been unnecessary as mere surplusage.

In addition, Reese wasn’t even providing emergency care or treatment, particularly if his version of what happened—that he got into the cab, but never moved the truck-is to be believed.  He sat down and did nothing.  That is not rendering emergency care or treatment. He did call 911.

Carter contends that the statute does not apply to Reese, that Reese did move the truck, that in doing so, he undertook a duty he did not have at common law, and therefore had to do so with reasonable care. It should be for the jury to determine whether he exercised reasonable care in this scenario. That is the proper resolution of this case.

Reese’s Argument

Reese is clearly protected by the Good Samaritan statute for his actions in trying to provide care in an emergency to Carter. The plain language of the statute makes it applicable to “any person,” not just medical personnel.  The amendment addition of police and firefighters was simply clarifying, not limiting.

There was no allegation of any conduct more culpable than simple negligence in this case, and there was none, placing Reese squarely within the protection of the statute. Public policy clearly supports this view.

From Reese’s point of view, Carter was stuck, and he tried to help get him freed. He had to make a snap decision.  In an emergency, one does not have time for deliberation. Even if Carter’s version of the facts were believed, Reese’s conduct was simple negligence at worst, and he is thus protected by the statute.

What Was On Their Minds

The Statutory Language

Is the preamble to the statute codified, or just a description of the bill, asked Justice French, in a series of questions to plaintiffs’ counsel about the statutory language.  If we compare the language in the Good Samaritan statute to the language in R.C. 2305.231(B) that gives immunity for medical and dental personnel volunteering in school athletics, it specifically refers to emergency medical or dental care. So why, if we are comparing these statutes, wouldn’t the court look at the section plaintiffs are talking about and say, the legislature didn’t say emergency medical care or emergency dental care, it just said care. Why wouldn’t that lead the court to conclude it just means care? What if the legislature intended one thing, but wrote another?

Didn’t the legislature clearly say emergency care, not emergency medical care, asked Justice O’Neill? How far should this statute go? Is anybody that comes to the assistance of another covered?

Primes v. Tyler

Wasn’t any discussion by the court in this case in a footnote about the Good Samaritan statute pure dicta,  asked Justice French?

What Happened at the Scene

Was Reese administering emergency care, asked Chief Justice O’Connor? (no said plaintiffs’ counsel; yes said defense counsel) Why was he trying to move the truck? Did he perceive it to be an emergency situation? Did Carter? (plaintiffs’ counsel admitted both parties perceived the situation to be an emergency) Was anyone else on the scene rendering treatment? Did Reese move the truck? (yes said plaintiffs’ counsel; no said defense counsel) If Reese didn’t do anything, what would his liability be? Did Reece call 911? Did he get into the truck at Carter’s request?

Why was there emergency care here, asked Justice French? What was the care rendered by the defendant that would bring him under the statute? Was it the attempt to move the truck?

What did Reese do when he got into the cab, asked Justice O’Donnell? Did the truck move while he was in it?

How long was Carter pinned before help was administered, asked Justice Lanzinger? Would it make any difference if Reese was asked to move the truck, as opposed to just call 911?

Negligence?

If this is just negligence, what is the exact negligence alleged in the case, asked Justice O’Donnell?

Was Reese negligent in moving the truck, asked Chief Justice O’Connor?

Anything More Than Simple Negligence?

Was Reese engaged in any willful or wanton misconduct, asked Justice Lanzinger? If Carter had just said call 911 but instead Reese went into the cab and decided to move the truck, would that implicate willful and wanton issues?

Is this a battery, asked Justice O’Donnell?

Some Good Old Law School Type Hypos

Would a layperson who came upon someone who was under water and appeared to be drowning not have the protection of the statute in administering mouth to mouth resuscitation, asked Justice Pfeifer? (he would not, said plaintiffs’ counsel).

Let’s say a person gets cut by their lawnmower. A neighbor comes over and puts a tourniquet on to stop the bleeding. He’s not a medical provider. Unfortunately the tourniquet is too tight and unfortunately we lose the leg because of lack of circulation. Am I describing a Good Samaritan at that point, asked Justice O’Neill?

The Nature of Emergencies

If someone gets in a semi that’s not used to semis and tries to help a person get free of his impingement, it wouldn’t be a surprise that a person trying to move that truck didn’t do it as expertly as a seasoned semi driver would, mused Justice Pfeifer. Did Reese have any such experience? (answer: no).

If No Immunity, Then What?

Even if the defendant is not covered by the statute, that doesn’t necessarily mean the plaintiffs win, does it, asked Justice Pfeifer?

What duty did Reese owe to Carter, asked Justice O’Donnell?

Plaintiffs claim they were denied their day in court, commented Justice O’Neill. Is it plaintiffs’ position that the duty of care arose when Carter said get in the truck and pull it forward and Reese said no problem when in fact it was a problem because he had no idea how to do that, asked Justice O’Neill? (yes, replied plaintiffs’ counsel, gratefully.)

How It Looks from the Bleachers

To Professor Bettman

Well, I taught torts. Plaintiffs’ counsel was absolutely correct in reminding the court that at common law there is no duty to rescue another. My students  were appalled when they first learned this. While it is legally correct, it is morally repugnant. That’s one of the reasons Good Samaritan statutes were enacted–to encourage people to help others in an emergency. States take very different views of these statutes, using varying language.  Some clearly intend to limit this immunity to medical providers, and those that do so say so explicitly.  Others take a very expansive view to cover any rescuer rendering aid.

I do think the court is going to conclude that Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute covers all persons, not just medical personnel. Justice French took the lead on this, emphasizing the “no person” language from the statute, and contrasting it with the language R.C. 2305.231(B) which expressly limits immunity in that context to medical providers. From a policy standpoint, this position seems the most desirable.

If it were me, I’d find Reese was covered by the statute here, but I’m not sure the court is going to buy that outcome. Even if the court concludes the statute does cover non-medical people, which I think it will, it may well decide the statute doesn’t apply here, either because there was no emergency (seemingly the Chief’s position, and a very unfair one, in my view—more on this in a moment) or that Reese wasn’t administering care or treatment. Both those positions seem to have some support. Without the application of the statute, this would revert to a simple negligence trial, at which a jury would determine whether Reese’s rescue attempt was reasonable under the circumstances—this is what plaintiffs argue should happen. It is also black letter law in torts that if a person undertakes a duty he does not have, he must do so non-negligently.  If the court goes this route, I think Reese should win the case anyway.  Which brings me back to the Chief’s position.  She really hammered on defense counsel about why Reese even considered this an emergency. She noted that Reese was proceeding as though he had to act, when in reality, “ you are proceeding as though he had no choice, that he had to act, when in reality, he didn’t have to act—the guy was pinned, he wasn’t bleeding, he was conscious, and is shouting help me, he’s not shouting help me, I can’t breathe, help me, I’m about to pass out, or anything like that. At that point, I’m in in a very uncomfortable situation and I’d like to be extricated.”

C’mon! Time to re-read Wagner v. International Railway where then Judge Benjamin Cardozo of the New York Court of Appeals wrote in 1921, “Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief.” Reese didn’t sit around and deliberate about the best course of action—that’s the whole point of cutting slack to rescuers. He saw a guy pinned, and tried to do something to free him. He got into the cab at the victim’s request (the Chief seemed to back off a bit when plaintiffs’ counsel admitted this) and probably tried to move the truck (that seems to me the more believable version) and realized he didn’t know how. Seems reasonable enough, regardless of the very bad outcome. Even the plaintiff’s counsel admitted his client considered this to be an emergency.

To Student Contributor Danielle List

Counsel for Carter began his argument by asserting that the immunity provided by the Good Samaritan Statute extends to only emergency medical care, which can only be given by medical professionals. Relying primarily on the preamble of the statute which noted this intended restriction to physicians and nurses, Carter argued that the Good Samaritan immunity could not be applied to Reese as a layperson. In a series of questions posed by Justice French regarding the plain meaning of the statute’s “all persons,” language, Carter provided a few examples from other parts of the statute’s text to support his position. In particular, he argued that the statute specifically provides immunity outside medical treatment areas, and that a Good Samaritan cannot charge for the services rendered. According to Carter, this implies that the statute only applies to medical professionals since they are the only people who would otherwise provide or charge for these services. Later, Carter drew support for his position from dicta in the Primes case, as well as the amendment to the statute that expressly provided immunity to police officers and firefighters.

The argument became a bit muddled once Chief Justice O’Connor asked whether the event was even an emergency situation. Instead of simply arguing that it wasn’t an emergency until Reese moved the truck, Carter proceeded to argue that since Reese contended that he didn’t even move the truck, he couldn’t have rendered emergency care. Puzzled as to how this answered her question (or why Carter was entertaining Reese’s version of the facts), Chief Justice O’Connor noted that if Reese didn’t move the truck, he also didn’t do anything to cause the injury. Turning to his version of the facts, Carter then asserted that both parties perceived the situation to be an emergency, but Reese’s moving of the truck did not constitute care.

Assuming that the immunity doesn’t apply to laypersons, Justice O’Donnell noted that Carter would still have to face the issue of negligence, which raises the question of whether Reese owed a duty of care to Carter. After a few bumbling attempts to invoke a duty provision of the statute without the requisite grant of immunity, Carter’s lack of a coherent answer eventually led Justice O’Neill to answer the question for him.

When counsel for Reese addressed the court, she immediately asserted that nothing beyond dicta in the case law supported Carter’s restriction of Good Samaritan immunity to medical professionals. Additionally, she emphasized that the application of the immunity to laypersons is supported by the plain language of the statute. To Reese, the amendment regarding police officers and firefighters is a clarifying clause that immunity is provided to “all persons,” and not a limiting clause.

While the bench didn’t push her on this issue, Justice O’Donnell noted that even if the statute applied to laypersons, to be immune from liability, the layperson must still render emergency care. This comment seemed to reveal several of the justices’ hesitation to find that Reese moving the truck constituted “emergency care.” Additionally, despite Carter’s earlier concession that it was an emergency situation, Chief Justice O’Connor seemed to doubt whether the situation was even an emergency.

When it was eventually confirmed by both parties that Carter had actually asked Reese to move the truck, Justice Lanzinger questioned Reese as to whether it made a difference that Carter asked him to move the truck as opposed to calling 911. Reese responded that this simply reaffirmed that Reese’s actions were at most negligent. On rebuttal, however, Carter seemed to suggest that a reasonable person in Reese’s position would have said no to the victim’s request. Of course, determination on this issue would be one for the jury, and would arise only if it was found that Reese is unprotected by the Good Samaritan Statute and owed a duty of care to Carter.

As far as the application of the statute to laypersons, I think the court will side with Reese and hold that “all persons” truly means “all persons,” and is thus, not limited to medical professionals. However, there seemed to be a good deal of hesitation on the bench as to whether this even rose to an emergency situation, despite both parties’ agreement that it did, which may cause Reese to still be unprotected by the statute.­­­

This entry was posted in Ohio Supreme Court Watch, Student Contributors, Torts, What's On Their Minds? and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.