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Index of Past Commentaries

March 30th / 31st, 2013

"Legislating Good Samaritans"

Statue of the Good Samaritan in ParisOne of the most popular stories from the Bible is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). In it, Jesus was being grilled by a legal scholar about the phrase, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The lawyer wanted to know exactly what constituted a true neighbor. In typical fashion, Jesus spun a tale to make his point. He told of a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead along the road to Jericho, and of three different men who passed by. The first two men refused to offer aid, but the third, a man from Samaria, stopped to help, and nursed the injured victim back to health. So far as we know, the probing attorney understood the lesson about neighbor helping neighbor. Unfortunately, his descendants haven’t. More than 2,000 years later, lawyer legislators across America have failed to come up with a universally applied standard that would encourage and protect those who stop to help others.

A modern interpretation would suggest that the three travelers along the road to Jericho represent our 50 diverse states, and how today’s laws are inconsistent and confusing from one state to the next. Had the Samaritan stopped to help someone along the road to Topeka, Kansas; Chicago; Hartford, Connecticut; Bloomington, Indiana; New Orleans, St. Louis or Eugene, Oregon; he could have been held criminally liable because he had no medical degree. On the flip side, in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Vermont and Rhode Island, you can be cited and fined for NOT stopping to help.

Last year, speaking with, Charlotte School of Law professor Sandra Jordan enumerated the inconsistencies in Samaritan laws which vary from state to state. “Quite frankly, there are a hodgepodge of laws. It’s all over the place. In some states, if you stop to check on an injured person, but you don’t follow through by making sure they get the medical help they need, you could be sued. [Samaritans] act at their own peril in coming to the aid [of others],” said Jordan.

In 2008, Gene Matthews, then with the North Carolina Institute of Public Health, told State Legislatures magazine’s Kathryn Foxhall, “Most states have Good Samaritan laws, but don’t give liability protection to entities such as the Red Cross, a power company, churches or businesses that perform such services as transporting medications.”

Here in North Carolina, our Samaritan laws seem skewed to those giving aid in roadside emergencies. The NCDOT website, for example, goes into great detail about who should administer medical assistance and when. Citing NC statutes 90-20 and 90-21, the website indicates that bystanders who help someone who has been injured are free to do so without civil liability, UNLESS they are “grossly negligent... when rendering treatment.” That ambiguous caveat is enough to discourage any Samaritan from administering first aid to someone, regardless of where that assistance is rendered. And that brings me to Glenwood Gardens in Bakersfield, Calif.

Earlier this month, a nurse at Glenwood Gardens retirement home refused to administer CPR to a dying resident. The nurse called 911 and described the  resident’s condition. “We need to get CPR started,” said the 911 dispatcher. “We can’t do CPR at this facility,” the nurse replied. The 87-year-old resident died before EMS could arrive on scene. The incident caused widespread outrage, and brought into focus policies which regulate retirement homes, as well as the need for consistent, federal Samaritan laws. Last week Glenwood officials tried to backtrack on its policy, and threw their nurse under the bus. Meanwhile, family members of the deceased resident came forward to say that the woman would not have wanted to be resuscitated. Nevertheless, the incident points up tragic flaws and gaps that exist in the laws and policies which govern our nation’s retirement homes and apply to individuals who come to the aid of others in general. That’s why Congress should act now to set national policy governing and protecting Good Samaritans.

In the meantime, anyone who has $89 and 99 cents can enroll in the Good Sam Travel Assist program. True, it’s mainly for RV owners, but membership includes emergency medical evacuation, emergency medical monitoring and coordination of emergency medication, blood and vaccine transfers. Good Sam will even arrange transportation for a loved one to be by your bedside if you are hospitalized as a result of an accident. It sounds like a great deal. But paying someone to be a good neighbor seems kind of sleazy to me.

So here we are. It’s been more than 2,000 years, and nothing about Good Samaritans has been resolved. I should have known this would happen the minute Jesus talked to a lawyer.