ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT LIMITS IMMUNITY DEFENSE AVAILABLE UNDER GOOD SAMARITAN ACT
By: C. Thomas Hendrix
In a recent opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the decision whether a physician is entitled to immunity from liability for emergency care under the Good Samaritan Act (“Act”) turns not on whether the patient was billed for the physician’s care, but rather whether the physician received compensation for his/her medical services. The Court, in a unanimous opinion, found the Act does not provide immunity to an on-duty emergency room physician sued for negligence who did not bill the patient for his services, because the physician received compensation for his medical services at the hospital that day and was not a volunteer. Home Star Bank and Financial Services v. Emergency Care and Health Organization, Ltd., 2014 IL 115526 (opinion filed March 20, 2014).
The issue: Physician’s receipt of compensation for medical services, not billing a patient for care.
In Home Star Bank and Financial Services, the plaintiff/patient was admitted to Provena St. Mary’s Hospital through the emergency room and was later transferred to the intensive care unit. The patient began having labored breathing and a Code Blue was called. Dr. Murphy, who was the only physician in the emergency room, responded to the Code Blue outside of the emergency room and attempted to intubate the patient. The patient suffered a brain injury. Plaintiffs filed a negligence action against Dr. Murphy and his medical group, ECHO, alleging Dr. Murphy’s care was the cause of the patient’s injuries.
Dr. Murphy moved for summary judgment asserting he was immune from liability for negligence under Section 25 of the Good Samaritan Act. Dr. Murphy contended that the Act applied because the patient was in the care of another physician who was not at the hospital, and because he provided emergency care to the patient, and the patient was not billed for that care.
The Good Samaritan Act provides in pertinent part that “[A]ny 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.” 745 ILCS 49/25 (2010).
The Circuit Court of Cook County concluded that Dr. Murphy was immune from liability pursuant to the Act and granted summary judgment. On appeal, the Appellate Court, First District, reversed, holding that the purpose of the Act was to promote volunteerism, and the Act was not meant to apply to physicians who respond to an emergency within the scope of their employment and are compensated for doing so.
On petition for leave to appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court in Home Star Bank and Financial Services acknowledged there was a division in the case law over the interpretation of Section 25 of the Act and what was meant by the words “without fee” in the statute. The two different interpretations of the Act were: 1) The correct interpretation of the Act is found in the case of Heanue v. Edgcomb, 355 Ill.App.3d 645 (2005) where the court held that application of the Act turned on whether or not the physician had billed for the emergency services. Under this interpretation, the word “fee” in the statute is unambiguous, and a physician is entitled to immunity for negligent emergency care so long as he or she did not bill the patient. 2) In contrast, plaintiffs contend the correct interpretation of the Act was set forth by the federal district court in Henslee v. Provena Hospitals, 373 F. Supp. 802 (N.D. Ill.2005). Under this view, “fee” is ambiguous, and can refer either to the patient being billed or a physician being paid for his services, and the legislative intent was the Act was only meant to apply to those who volunteer their services.
Having considered the case authority and the legislative history, the Illinois Supreme Court stated that the issue is therefore one of statutory construction, to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Court below and with the Henslee decision that the term “fee” is ambiguous, and must be given a broader definition to include both a patient being billed or a doctor being paid. The Court concluded: “[The doctor] was fully compensated for his time that day, and it is clear that he responded to the emergency not because he was volunteering to help but because it was his job to do so… Moreover, it is clear from both the agreement that ECHO (emergency physician group) had with the hospital and the agreement that ECHO had with [the doctor] that ECHO physicians were required to comply with hospital policies, and the hospital’s written policy made clear that emergency room physicians were to respond to Code Blues.” The Supreme Court held that Dr. Murphy did not provide his services “without fee,” and he may not claim immunity under the Good Samaritan Act. The Court therefore affirmed the decision of the Appellate Court, reversing summary judgment in favor of Dr. Murphy.
The Good Samaritan Act does not shield on-duty emergency room physicians who do not bill a particular patient; but the decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in Home Star Bank should not prevent raising the defense of immunity under the Act on behalf of other physicians in the hospital setting responding to an emergency where it is not the physician’s job to respond to emergencies and hospital policies do not require the physician to respond. A valid Good Samaritan defense in a hospital would be a physician who responds to a patient in an emergency, and goes to assist the patient, and the physician was not being paid and had no obligation to respond.