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Maryland's "Good Samaritan Act" Does Not Shield Commercial Ambulance Companies from Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Ambulance 2nd photo.jpgCommercial ambulances are not immune from liability for negligence under Maryland's "Good Samaritan Act," the state's top court has ruled.

The Good Samaritan Act provides immunity from lawsuits for ordinary negligence for volunteer fire departments, ambulance and rescue squads.

Maryland's "Fire and Rescue Act" provides immunity from lawsuits for fire and rescue companies for ordinary negligence for "any act or omission in the course of performing their duties."

TransCare Maryland, Inc. and others v. Bryson Murray and others dealt with the question whether one or both of the statutes relieved a commercial ambulance company of liability for ordinary negligence that allegedly occurred during the transfer of a patient between medical facilities. "We hold that they do not," the Court of Appeals concluded.

Bryson Murray was taken to Easton Memorial Hospital in Talbot County on November 15, 2007, because he was suffering from congestion and having trouble breathing. He was fitted at the hospital with an endotracheal breathing tube. Because Easton Memorial was not equipped to handle intubated children, hospital officials decided to transfer him to the pediatric intensive care unit at the Medical Center of the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore. UMMS arranged for PHI Air Medical to transport the boy by helicopter. Chris Barbour, a paramedic employed by TransCare had been invited to ride along by the UMMS nurse (with PHI's permission) for orientation purposes, was also present.

TransCare is a licensed commercial ground ambulance transport company and was under contract with UMMS to provide ground ambulance services for patients between the Medical Center and area hospitals.

After the helicopter arrived at Easton Memorial, Barbour set up equipment and the team placed Bryson on the aircraft. Shortly after take-off, however, Bryson's heart rate and oxygen blood level began to drop because the endotracheal tube had become dislodged and was blocking his airway. Members of the flight team searched for a pediatric air mask to restore Bryson's breathing, but were unable to locate it.

Bryson, by his mother, Karen Murray, filed a complaint against TransCare alleging medical malpractice on the basis that its employee, Barbour, had failed to provide the requisite standard of care. According to the complaint, Bryson suffered brain injury from lack of oxygen and, as a result, became blind, deaf, and mentally disabled.

TransCare asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that it was immune from liability under both the Good Samaritan Act and the Fire and Rescue Act. The Circuit Court for Talbot County granted the request. The Murrays appealed. The Court of Special Appeals reversed, holding that neither statute applied to a private, for-profit ambulance company.

TransCare then asked the Court of Appeals to review the case. The state's top court affirmed the Court of Special Appeals, holding that a commercial ambulance company such as TransCare does not qualify for immunity under the Good Samaritan Act, regardless of whether the company's employee may qualify for immunity under the statute. In addition, in the circumstances of this case, the court said TransCare had not demonstrated that it functioned as a "rescue company" that would have had immunity from liability under the Fire and Rescue Act. As a result, TransCare was not entitled to have the lawsuit dismissed on the basis of statutory immunity.

In coming to its ruling, the Court of Appeals first examined whether TransCare had immunity under the state's Good Samaritan Act. TransCare argued that it qualified as a "volunteer fire department or ambulance and rescue squad whose members have immunity." TransCare also argued that, it had immunity because its employee, Barbour, had immunity under the statute.

The court discussed the legislative history of the statute and then focused on the meaning of the word "volunteer," in finding that the legislature intended to provide immunity from liability to non-profits such as a volunteer fire department.

The state's top court then found that TransCare could not claim immunity under the "Fire and Rescue Act" in these circumstances - a slightly different result than the ruling by the Court of Special Appeals as the Court of Appeals said there were circumstances in which a commercial ambulance company might qualify as a rescue company and be allowed immunity under the Fire and Rescue Act. The court first noted that ambulance companies must have liability insurance coverage of at least $1,000,000, which would not be necessary if they were supposed to be protected by statutory immunity. The Court of Appeals also said that the term "rescue company" referred to an entity providing services in response to a crisis or emergency. There was no evidence that such was the case in this situation, the court said. As a result, TransCare was not acting as a "rescue company" at the time of the incident.

Baltimore, Md.-based Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been representing clients in medical malpractice and personal injury cases for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.

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