Posted on 07/26/2021

Who is Liable for Medical Emergency Malpractice?

Who is Liable for Medical Emergency Malpractice?

Medical emergencies often strike when we least expect it–during family get-togethers, shopping for groceries, walking your dog, while cooking dinner, etc. They can take many forms and have serious implications for the person experiencing the emergency.  

If you or a loved one experienced an emergency but were injured during the emergency care you received, can you sue for medical emergency malpractice? 

Keep reading to learn about the unique conditions that apply to emergency situations.

What is a Medical Emergency?

A true medical emergency is a sudden, serious injury or medical condition that poses a critical risk to someone’s long-term health and can result in death. 

If the person is pregnant, a medical emergency can also affect the unborn baby, the mother, or both. A medical emergency requires immediate attention and assistance. Without it, the affected person could experience harm or injury.

Most medical emergencies often require assistance from another person. Depending on the severity of your emergency, you may require assistance from multiple levels of emergency care, ranging from friends or neighbors with first aid training, off-duty doctors, or a good samaritan, etc., to emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, emergency room care, or more. 

Examples of common, life-threatening medical emergencies can include:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Severe bleeding or burns
  • Breathing difficulties (these can occur in a variety of ways, including allergies, a congenital disability, illness, or be the result of injury)
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Gunshot wounds
  • Poison, including drug overdoses or ingesting toxic substances
  • Injuries
  • Shock
  • Anaphylaxis — severe allergic reactions

A medical emergency can be an intimidating or even frightening experience. 

If you come upon someone experiencing a medical emergency, the first thing to do is make an effort to remain calm. Because help takes some time to be dispatched and arrive at your destination, call 911 for help as quickly as possible if you find someone experiencing an emergency. This will be beneficial for the person having the emergency and help you through the experience. 

Medical Mistake or Medical Emergency Malpractice?

Medical health care professionals are legally required to provide a standard of care while they are on duty. They are legally obligated to carry out medical care to the same level and quality that other doctors or healthcare providers would do in a similar situation.

That means not every mistake is medical malpractice, but mistakes that happen when doctors or other healthcare professionals act recklessly or perform their duties below that standard of care can be sued for medical malpractice. 

It’s important to note that the standard of care required for a family physician treating patients in their own, quiet medical practice office is different from the standard of care required to treat patients in a chaotic emergency situation. 

In other words, a mistake that could meet the definition of medical malpractice in your family physician’s office might not meet the medical malpractice threshold for an emergency room. 

But what do you do if a medical mistake happens during an emergency outside of a hospital?

Who Can You Sue For Medical Emergency Malpractice?

Injuries resulting from medical emergency malpractice have different rules than most other medical malpractice scenarios.

Hospital ER doctors, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners can be sued for medical malpractice. But what about the care you receive before you get to the emergency room?

First Responders

The term first responders include professionally trained medical and emergency personnel, such as firefighters, ambulance crews, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians

Most state laws prevent emergency first responders working with official emergency or rescue organizations from being sued or named in most malpractice lawsuits.  

But that protection doesn’t mean they aren’t exceptions to that rule. For example, if a first responder acts negligently or with extreme recklessness, they could be considered liable for your injuries or for the damages you incurred. 

Because first responders are typically employees of hospitals or specialized emergency care organizations, the medical malpractice liability (legal and financial) generally falls to their employer.  

Off-Duty Doctor or Health-Care Professional

What happens if an off-duty doctor or other healthcare professional comes upon an emergency situation, such as an accident or injury, and they decide to step in and help? In this scenario, malpractice legal standards don’t apply because the doctor and the patient don’t know one another; there isn’t an established doctor-patient relationship, one of the four elements required to prove medical malpractice. 

But that doesn’t mean they can’t still be held accountable if you are injured or incur damages because of their negligence or recklessness. In the scenario described above, the doctor or healthcare provider would fall under the Good Samaritan rule. 

Good Samaritan Rule

While people aren’t typically legally obligated to help if they come upon an emergency situation, they can choose to get involved. However, if they do, they have to act in a way that won’t purposefully harm the person having the emergency. 

This is called the Good Samaritan rule, and it applies to anyone who passes by an emergency situation and takes steps to help the person in need, even though they have no legal requirement for them to get involved.

 It applies to off-duty medical professionals, such as doctors, nurses, first responders, EMTs, etc., as well as ordinary people going about their lives–people with no previous medical training or experience.

The rule says that so long as the person who attempts to help doesn’t act recklessly or puts the person they’re helping in unnecessary danger, they cannot be sued for medical malpractice. 

What happens if the off-duty doctor who volunteers to help out in an emergency already has a pre-existing relationship with the person having the emergency? In this scenario, there would be a higher expectation for the level of care the doctor must provide, and that doctor could potentially be liable for medical malpractice. 

If you or someone you love has been injured as a result of care received during an emergency situation, the medical malpractice experts at Grover Lewis Johnson are here to help.

Our more than 25 years of medical malpractice experience guides everything we do for our clients. And because we work on a contingency basis, you don’t pay our fees until you receive a settlement. Call us to schedule your free consultation. We’ll answer all your questions and help you decide what the best course of action is for your specific situation.