Doctors on Airplanes

Yesterday over dinner, a doctor related a story of a friend who was on an airplane when another passenger fell ill. The friend helped the ill passenger, but when the airline offered a free first class upgrade as thanks, she declined: The friend thought that this might deprive her of the protection of a “Good Samaritan” law, so that if the other passenger believed that she had been negligent in taking care of him, she could be sued for malpractice.

It turns out, though, that the friend could have taken the upgrade with little worry. The relevant law here — at least as to American air carriers (the matter is less certain as to the U.S. law applicable on foreign air careers) — is the federal Aviation Medical Assistance Act of 1998, sec. 5(b), which provides:

An individual shall not be liable for damages in any action brought in a Federal or State court arising out of the acts or omissions of the individual in providing or attempting to provide assistance in the case of an in-flight medical emergency unless the individual, while rendering such assistance, is guilty of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

So there’s no liability for negligent care by a doctor called to help in an airplane, even when some compensation is given, unless the doctor is grossly negligent, in which case there may be liability but again without regard to whether compensation is given. If you’re a doctor and decide to help a fellow passenger, might as well take the tokens of thanks that the airline gives you.

Stepping back, recall that the general American rule is:

(1) You generally have no legal duty to provide medical care or other help to others (unless there’s a special relationship between you and them, for instance if they are your business visitors).

(2) Once you decide to provide help, however, you may be liable if your efforts turn out to be negligent under the circumstances, and (to quote the Restatement of Torts),

(a) the failure to exercise [reasonable] care increase[d] the risk of harm beyond that which existed without the undertaking, or

(b) the person to whom the services are rendered or another relies on the actor’s exercising reasonable care in the undertaking.

And that reliance might be present simply because some more competent fellow passenger or passerby would be less likely to come forward if he sees the victim is already being taken care of. When you volunteer to help, you’re not just helping — you’re decreasing the likelihood that someone else will help.

(3) But exception 2 in some measure discourages people from helping, especially when they are doctors and thus are especially likely to be faulted for supposedly poor medical care. Because of this, many jurisdictions have “Good Samaritan” statutes that limit liability in some situations; the Aviation Medical Assistance act is one such example.