Merit Decision: Court Gives Broad Interpretation to Ohio’s Good Samaritan Statute. Carter v. Reese.

On August 30, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Carter v. Reese, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5569. In a 4-3 opinion written by Justice O’Donnell, joined by Justices Kennedy, French, and O’Neill, the court held that Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute, codified at R.C. 2305.23, applies to any person who administers emergency care or treatment, (all seven justices agreed with this point of law, but not its application) and gave a broad reading to the statutory phrase “administering emergency care.” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote a dissent joined by Justice Lanzinger. Justice Pfeifer wrote a solo dissent. The case was argued January 5, 2016.

Case Background

Appellant Dennis Carter pulled a tractor-trailer into a loading dock in Fairfield, Ohio to deliver an empty trailer and pick up another one. After switching the empty trailer with a new one, Carter pulled the truck forward slightly, unlocked the trailer brake, and locked the tractor brake so the wheels could not move. When he tried to pull himself onto the loading dock to close the trailer door, he slipped, and his right leg became stuck between the loading dock and trailer.  While he felt no physical pain at that point, he could not free himself, and began to yell for help.

About ten minutes later, Appellee Larry Reese heard Carter, and drove into the lot to help. Carter told Reese to get into the truck, and to move it forward, and warned him not to put the truck in reverse. Once in the cab of the truck Reese realized he did not know how to operate it, and released the air brake causing the truck to roll backwards and break Carter’s leg. Paramedics arrived soon afterward, moved the truck, and freed Carter’s leg.  But because of the severity of the injury, Carter’s leg had to be amputated above the knee.

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.

Read the oral argument preview of the case here, and the analysis of the argument here.

Key Statutes and Precedent

R.C. 2305.23 (Ohio’s Good Samaritan Statute)(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.)

R.C. 2305.231(B) ( No physician who volunteers the physician’s services as a team physician or team podiatrist to a school’s athletics program, no dentist who volunteers the dentist’s services as a team dentist to a school’s athletics program, and no registered nurse who volunteers the registered nurse’s services as a team nurse to a school’s athletics program is liable in damages in a civil action for administering emergency medical care, emergency dental care, other emergency professional care, or first aid treatment to a participant in an athletic event involving the school, at the scene of the event or while the participant is being transported to a hospital, physician’s or dentist’s office, or other medical or dental facility, or for acts performed in administering the care or treatment, unless the acts of the physician, dentist, or registered nurse constitute willful or wanton misconduct.)

Estates of Morgan v. Fairfield Counseling Ctr., 77 Ohio.3d 284, 673 2d 1311 (1997) (The common law in Ohio is that a bystander has no affirmative duty to aid or protect another absent a special relationship justifying the imposition of a duty.)

Held v. City of Rocky River, 34 Ohio App.3d 35 (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 Ohio’s guest statute 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.”)

Stolz v. J & B Steel Erectors, Inc., 146 Ohio St.3d 281, 2016-Ohio-1567. (When a court interprets the meaning of a statute, it “must give effect to all the statute’s words.”)

Wachendorf v. Shaver, 149 Ohio St. 231 (1948) (The title of an act is never employed to defeat the clear intent of the Legislature.)

Merit Decision

As is his wont, Justice O’Donnell begins with the positions of the parties.

Carters’ Position

The Carters argue that Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute provides immunity only for health care professionals and trained first responders who provide medical care and treatment at the scene of an emergency, and that the legislature would have used different language if it intended otherwise.  They point to language in footnote 5 in Primes v. Taylor stating the R.C.2305.23 applies to those who render medical aid.  Finally, it is their position that Reese did not render any kind of emergency care or treatment when he tried to move the truck.

Reese’s Position

Reese argues the statute applies to anyone, noting the absence of the word “medical” in the definition of those covered. He does not claim to have provided emergency treatment.

The Issues on Appeal

This case presents two issues to the court. The first is whether the legislature intended to include only health care professionals administering emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency, or any person doing so. Second, did the legislature intend to limit emergency care only to the administration of medical care, or did it intend to include all forms of care rendered at the scene of an emergency?

The Common Law Rule

This always shocks my beginning torts students. Absent a special relationship, there is no duty at common law to come to the aid of or to rescue another who is in peril.  But if a person does undertake such a duty, he or she must do so with due care.  Perhaps in response to such a morally repugnant common law rule, states beginning with California in 1959 began to enact Good Samaritan statutes, to encourage physicians (they were initially the only ones covered there) to provide care in an emergency situation without the fear of being sued.  Today, all fifty states have some version of a Good Samaritan statute.

Types of Good Samaritan Statutes

There are three categories of Good Samaritan statutes—those that specifically cover only medically trained persons, those that cover any person who renders medical assistance, and those that broadly cover any person rendering emergency care or treatment that does not necessarily need to be medical in nature. In this opinion, Justice O’Donnell reviews and categorizes the statutes in all fifty states. This takes up a lot of pages in the majority opinion. There are five states in the first and most restrictive category, four in the second, and the rest in the third. O’Donnell points out that after the Supreme Court of California interpreted “emergency care” to mean “emergency medical care,” the California legislature amended the statute the following year to clarify that emergency care meant both medical and nonmedical care.

Wither Ohio?

Based on the plain language of Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute, which begins “no person shall be liable in civil damages…” the court concludes that the statute applies to any person who administers emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency—not just to medical personnel, although they of course are also included. So Ohio is in the vast majority of states in this third category. On this point of law all seven justices are in agreement. O’Donnell points to R.C. 2305.231 (B),  a statute regarding care at school sporting events that covers only health care providers, to show that the legislature knows how to limit immunity if it wishes to do so.   Justice French clearly made that point early in the oral argument of the case.

So Where is the Disagreement?

The disagreement among the justices is in the meaning of “administering emergency care.”

Unforeseen or Unforeseeable?

Majority Interpretation

Using a combination of dictionary definitions and plain and ordinary meanings, the majority interprets “emergency” as an “unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” “Care” includes “responsibility for or attention to safety and well-being.” O’Donnell criticizes Chief Justice O’Connor’s dissent for using the terms “unforeseen” and “unforeseeable” as if they were synonymous, asserting that they are not. “Unforeseen” means unexpected.

Application to Facts of This Case

To the majority, the uncontested facts of the case are that Reese administered emergency care at the scene of an accident by attempting to move the truck and free Carter’s leg which was trapped. Thus, the Good Samaritan statute covers him, and he is not liable in civil damages to the Carters.

Chief Justice O’Connor’s Dissent

The Chief agrees that the statute applies to any person who administers emergency care or treatment. Her points of disagreement are in the majority’s definition of “emergency” and in granting summary judgment in the case.

The Definition of Emergency

The Chief believes the majority definition of “emergency” includes the legal concept of “foreseeability.” O’Connor would not limit the term “emergency care” to an unforeseen combination of circumstances. And she chides the majority for failing to consider the legislature’s purpose in enacting the law. She agrees that the purpose was to shield all people, not just medical folks, who give aid or assistance, but disagrees that the legislature intended to incorporate the concept of foreseeability into the definition of emergency. (Justice O’Donnell takes issue with this in paragraph 32 of the majority opinion.) She believes the majority’s definition of “emergency” is too limited and technical and thus thwarts the purpose of the statute.

First, the Chief asserts that it is the urgency of a situation, not its foreseeability, that is key to the definition of an emergency. She gives several examples of accidents and injuries from the sports world which she argues would not be covered under the majority definition of “emergency,” which she does not believe is what the legislature intended.

Next, she criticizes the majority for using a current dictionary definition of “emergency” rather than one contemporaneous with the enactment of the statute in 1977. She likes this definition from a 1983 Sixth District Court of Appeals decision-“a sudden or unexpected occurrence…demanding prompt action; urgent necessity.” She cites a number of examples of courts interpreting “emergency” without reference to foreseeability in other areas of law, and concludes that consistent with those definitions, she would not “limit an ‘emergency’ for purposes of R.C 2305.23 to those that are unforeseeable.” She also cites to definitions of “emergency” from other states interpreting their Good Samaritan statutes without reference to foreseeability.

Summary Judgment

The Chief’s final disagreement with the majority is in its finding that summary judgment was appropriate in this case. To her, in some cases in the Good Samaritan context, this being one, the question of whether an emergency existed is a question of fact for the jury, and thus not amenable to summary judgment. She cites Justice Pfeifer’s dissent as an example of how reasonable minds in this case can differ.  And she issues a reminder that the burden to prove an emergency in such cases is on the person who administered the aid (that would be Reese in this case).

Justice Lanzinger joined the Chief’s dissent.

Justice Pfeifer’s Solo Dissent

While agreeing with both paragraphs of the syllabus, Pfeifer would find that the Good Samaritan statute doesn’t apply to this case because although Reese provided care, there was no emergency. He would find that while Carter was trapped, he was just inconvenienced and the situation did not require immediate action—part of the majority’s definition of an emergency.

“What Carter needed was a person competent to move a tractor-trailer forward without allowing any movement backward. That did not have to be done immediately or urgently―it needed to be done well. Unfortunately, it was not done well, because Reese didn’t know how to drive a tractor-trailer. Reese should have sought assistance from a competent driver. Instead, he inserted himself into a situation that did not demand immediate action and made the situation much worse,” wrote Pfeifer.

Pfeifer would reverse the court of appeals’ judgment on the merits.

Case Syllabus

  1. Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute applies to any person who administers emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency including but not limited to health care professionals.
  2. The phrase “administering emergency care” as used in Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute includes rendering medical and any other form of assistance to the safety and well-being of another when the result of an unforeseen combination of circumstances calls for immediate action.

Concluding Observations

After argument, I predicted that the court would find that Ohio’s Good Samaritan statute covers all persons, and not just medical personnel. I also wrote that I would find that Reese was covered by the statute, but wasn’t sure there was a majority for that position. There was.  It was apparent during oral argument that the Chief wasn’t buying the fact of an emergency, but I thought she was too harsh there.  Such a situation doesn’t require careful analytical thought.  And I suspect that Carter thought it was an emergency at the time. His lawyer admitted as much at the argument.

I found the disagreement in the opinion over the definition of “emergency” to be overblown. In the end I found myself agreeing with the majority that “unforeseen” doesn’t mean the same as “unforeseeable,” but regretting that the court didn’t use a phrase  like  “urgent and unexpected,” instead of either term.

I can see some support for the Chief’s position that cases like this should not be decided by summary judgment. As the Chief points out, the burden is on the proponent of the protection of the statute to establish that he or she reasonably believed that an emergency was occurring and that immediate action was needed to prevent serious harm, which suggests a jury question.  While the opinion doesn’t cite this, there is some analogy here to the sudden medical emergency, or blackout, defense in auto accident cases. As Justice Resnick wrote in Roman v. Estate of Gobbo, 2003-Ohio-3655, “many cases in which sudden medical emergency is raised as a defense to negligence are not well suited to resolution by summary judgments or directed verdicts, but must proceed to trial, where it is incumbent upon the factfinder to determine whether the requirements of the defense have been met. ” But the Chief did not get a majority of votes for this position in this case.

Still, I think that even if this case had gone to a jury, Reese would have won. As I quoted from Justice Cardozo, in my oral argument analysis, “Danger invites rescue.” The law just doesn’t require careful thought and analysis in an emergency. I don’t often disagree with Justice Pfeifer when it comes to torts, but this time I do.

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