Illinois Supreme Court Concludes that the Good Samaritan Act Applies to Volunteers and Not Those Who Are Compensated to Treat Patients Within the Scope of Their Employment Even If the Patient is Not Billed for Services

Illinois physicians can no longer claim immunity under the Good Samaritan Act if they are compensated for their time within the scope of their employment despite the fact that the patient was not billed for the emergency care provided.  Home Star Bank and Financial Services, Guardian of the Estate of Edward Anderson, a Disabled Person v. Emergency Care and Health Organization, Ltd. et al., 2014 IL 115526.

Plaintiffs filed suit as guardian of the estate of Edward Anderson against Dr. Murphy and his employer Emergency Care & Health Organization, Ltd (ECHO) alleging that Dr. Murphy was negligent in treating Anderson.  Anderson was admitted through the emergency room and later transferred to the ICU with a diagnosis of epiglottitis.  While in the ICU, a Code Blue was called and defendant Dr. Murphy (who was working the ER at the time) responded and attempted to intubate.  Anderson suffered a severe and permanent brain injury.

While the district court concluded that Dr. Murphy was immune from liability pursuant to the Good Samaritan Act and granted summary judgment to defendants, the First District appellate court reversed and remanded holding that the Act was meant to apply to volunteers, not those who treat patients within the scope of their employment and are compensated for doing so.  The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court.

The Good Samaritan Act states:

Any person licensed under the Medical Practice Act of 1987 or any person licensed to practice the treatment of human ailments in any other state or territory of the United States who, in good faith, provides emergency care without fee to a person, shall not, as a result of his or her acts or omissions except willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the person, in providing the care, be liable for civil damages.  754 ILCS 48/25.

The issue was one of statutory construction as to what “without a fee” means.  Dr. Murphy argued that Section 25 applied because he provided emergency care to Anderson and in good faith did not bill for the care provided in the ICU.  By contrast, plaintiff argued that “fee” is ambiguous and can refer to either a patient being billed or a physician being paid.  Here, Dr. Murphy was paid hourly for his time that day in the ER.

The Illinois Supreme Court held that the term “fee” is ambiguous and in considering the legislative intent, this term should be given broader meaning than that employed by earlier Illinois appellate court decisions.  Overall, Dr. Murphy was compensated for his time that day albeit in the ER, he testified it was his responsibility to respond to Code Blues, and the agreement between his employer ECHO and the hospital required physicians to comply with hospital policies, one of which required physicians to respond to Code Blues.  Therefore, Dr. Murphy could not be a volunteer if he could not ignore a Code Blue if he was available; he did not provide his services “without a fee” since he was compensated for his time, thus he cannot claim immunity under the Good Samaritan Act.

The Home Star Bank opinion resolved a split in the districts as to what “without a fee” means under the Good Samaritan Act.  This decision will subject physicians and their employers to greater liability than they were previously immune from.  The medical community should be aware of this opinion in enacting policies and contracting for services pertaining to physician responses in emergency situations in a hospital or office setting.  Prior to this decision, it was possible for physicians to claim immunity if they did not charge a patient a fee, however, physicians should now be aware if they are being paid for their time, such immunity no longer exists.

Trisha K. Tesmer

Trisha K. Tesmer

Trisha K. Tesmer is an Appellate and Litigation partner in the firm's Chicago office.