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Samaritan Case Analysis

The lead opinion reaches the correct result on the Good Samaritan issue in this case, but the reasoning it employs could be problematic in other cases, because it seems to adopt a wholly objective definition of "emergency care," with no subjective component.

In this case, real emergency care was just a telephone call away; it was not until Mueller responded inappropriately to a question seven hours after the accident that Stephani finally called for an ambulance.

Suppose, however, that Stephani had followed the same course of action, but help could not have been readily summoned; the scene of the accident was in a remote place, and no telephone or transportation was available.

Applying the majority’s reasoning, Stephani is still not entitled to immunity, because her actions do not constitute "emergency care." Yet, clearly, she would have a far stronger argument that she should be immune, provided she acted in "good faith," and met any other statutory requirements.

To distinguish the case at bar in such a case, and to find immunity, would require looking beyond the objective definition of "emergency care," to the defendant’s subjective state of mind.

Here, Stephani claimed that she rendered "emergency care," and should be immune. Her own actions belie the contention, however. Had she subjectively believed, at the time of the accident, that this was an "emergency," she would have called for an ambulance seven hours earlier.

Reading between the lines here, Stephani is effectively arguing that she acted as she did (rather than calling 911) because she did not believe there was an emergency, but that she should nevertheless be entitled to immunity because she rendered "emergency care." The argument is internally inconsistent.

However, in the hypothetical where no professional emergency care could be readily summoned, the defendant can consistently and plausibly argue that she subjectively believed there was an emergency, and under the circumstances, she did render emergency care, because she did not know what else to do.

Thus, although the decision in this case examines "emergency care" solely from an objective perspective, attorneys should not ignore the subjective perspective — did the defendant subjectively believe there was an emergency? Such an approach may provide a principled basis for distinguishing this case, even when the defendant’s actions do not constitute "emergency care" under the court’s definition.

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This is so, even though the statute has a "good faith" requirement, which was also an issue in this case, although the court did not reach it.

In the case at bar, for example, it could be argued that Stephani did not necessarily act in good faith. It is possible that she did not want to call an ambulance, because her own conduct that evening had not been blameless — providing alcohol to underage persons.

Even assuming there is no question that Stephani acted in good faith, she still should not be immune under the Good Samaritan Law, because, subjectively, she clearly did not regard the situation as an emergency; as such, she could not have rendered “emergency care.”

So, the good faith requirement does not obviate the need for a subjective inquiry; whether the defendant subjectively believed that an emergency existed should be a relevant issue, as well as good faith.

– David Ziemer

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David Ziemer can be reached by email.

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