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News / Health / Health Wire

This law is the reason bystanders can save your life in an emergency. Here’s how it works

By Karlee Van De Venter, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 16, 2023, 6:02am

KENNEWICK — The implications of Good Samaritan laws vary on a state-by-state basis, though all 50 states and the District of Columbia have legislation protecting bystanders who jump in to help in an emergency.

If you see someone experiencing an emergency, first call 911. Then, if you can safely do so, administer first aid until paramedics arrive.

Kennewick Police Sgt. Chris Littrell says anyone at the scene of an emergency should take three steps: be a great witness, call 911 and administer basic aid, if possible.

If a civil lawsuit is filed against someone who took those three steps in an emergency, it is likely a judge will cite the Good Samaritan law as a reason not to pursue civil liability.

The original Good Samaritan

The origin of a “Good Samaritan” comes from the Bible, a story told by Jesus in Luke Chapter 10. There was much conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus’ story starts with a traveling Jew, who is robbed and beaten.

Several people, believed to be objectively “good people,” including a priest, pass by the injured man and do not help him. The man who finally helps him is a Samaritan, who chose to help someone in need before worrying about repercussions.

The characterization of a Good Samaritan has generally stayed the same, meaning someone who sees another person in need and tries to help, thinking about that person’s needs before their own.

Many states have Good Samaritan laws, which protect people acting in this way from legal implications if something does wrong. The hope is that by removing the need to worry about your own potential liability, people will be more eager to assist those around them.

Washington’s law

Washington state’s Good Samaritan law protects anyone who provides first aid or transportation during an emergency without expecting to be paid, from civil damages. That means that medical professionals still have a higher standard of care in their professions, but bystanders won’t be found negligent for attempting basic help.

This can be especially crucial in certain emergencies, like cardiac arrest.

While automated external defibrillators (AEDs) are becoming more readily accessible, the devices can only save lives if they are used. If people are too hesitant because of the possible risks, the chance to save a life following sudden cardiac arrest could be missed entirely.

Sudden cardiac arrest is one of many emergency situations in which time is of the essence. If passersby do not act quickly and reasonably, it could cost a life.

“Victims of sudden cardiac arrest have only one hope — rapid CPR, ideally in conjunction with an AED,” the CPR Seattle website says. “CPR given poorly is better than no CPR at all, but CPR given by a trained, confident and quick-responding rescuer, along with an AED, is often the only way to save someone’s life.”

The law also comes into play during imminent emergency situations, like a car crash.

If a car crashes and catches fire with two people inside, and a bystander came to pull both people out, the bystander would be protected from liability if the occupants were somehow injured by moving them.

Since there is assumed injury to the people inside, plus continued pending danger from the fire, most logical bystanders would opt to get the person out of the car.

The key in Good Samaritan law protections is acting reasonably. If a bystander acted reasonably in response to an active emergency, they are protected from potential civil liability.

The exception in Washington’s Good Samaritan law is gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, meaning purposefully ignoring the risk of a situation and acting anyway.

Both circumstances have greater legal weight than ordinary negligence, which Good Samaritans are protected from. They can include acting with ulterior motives, like fame and recognition, or purposeful harm.

Washington law also requires consent from conscious victims. If the bystander is told to stop, Good Samaritan laws no longer apply.

Overdose and volunteering

In the last 20 years, the prevalence of drug overdoses has been considered in conversations around Good Samaritan laws. Washington state amended its law in 2010.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports drug overdose as a leading cause of injury death in the United States, with numbers increasing more than eight times since 1999.

About 82% of overdose deaths in 2019-2020 included opioids.

In Washington, overdose is a leading cause of death. The Washington State Department of Health reports two people die of opioid overdose in the state every day.

Since an opioid overdose can last hours before death, researchers studied why overdoses weren’t being reported. Medical help can reverse the effects of an overdose, if administered in time. The research suggested people were hesitant to report an overdose because of the possible criminal implications, particularly once police arrive.

In response, Washington state expanded its Good Samaritan law to protect people overdosing and anyone who tries to help them.

That way, people can call 911 about a drug overdose without fear of drug possession charges. If people are using drugs recreationally and someone overdoses, people won’t have to worry about getting their friends or themselves in trouble by calling for help.

Police may show up, but they cannot arrest anyone or investigate the drug use unless there’s an intent to distribute the drug.

The updated law also allowed for people likely to experience or witness an overdose to legally carry naloxone, a nasal spray that can reverse overdose effects, increasing the chance of bystanders saving someone’s life. It regulates heart patterns long enough for first responders to arrive.

Littrell told the Herald that he has seen family members of addicts carry Narcan, a brand of naloxone. It is one thing people can do when a loved one suffers from drug use disorders.

In 2021, Washington expanded the bill again to include volunteers assisting in the aftermath of a natural disaster or related emergency.

Other Good Samaritan laws

The Aviation Medical Assistance Act of 1998 protects all plane passengers acting as Good Samaritans.

That way, even while in federal airspace, those experiencing a medical emergency can receive help and bystanders can feel safe offering help.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires first aid kits on all flights and many also have AEDs. Airline staff undergoes emergency training as well, but in the scenario a bystander can provide additional aid, they are also protected.

Interestingly, many states first introduced the law to protect healthcare providers acting as Good Samaritans in emergency situations, using their medical expertise in emergencies without expectation of pay.

Nowadays, physicians often cannot be considered Good Samaritans if they have an existing relationship with the person experiencing an emergency or if they receive pay for the assistance. If there is “no duty to treat,” a medical professional could receive protections under Good Samaritan law.

Medical professionals have a duty to treat patients while on the job. Depending on state code, the parameters of this duty will vary. The Good Samaritan law may protect them when acting outside of that duty.

Many college campuses operate under a complicated mix of federal laws, state laws and campus policies.

While federal and state Good Samaritan laws exist, college campuses have enacted their own protections, sometimes with even more specific parameters.

At Washington State University, students have increased protections when reporting as a Good Samaritan.

If a student sees anyone, a friend or a stranger, who appears to be under the influence and needs medical help, they can report it to campus police, local police, school staff or medical professionals. Students are promised neither the person reporting or the intoxicated individual will be disciplined.

Negligence laws

Fewer states have included sibling negligence laws, aka Duty to Rescue laws, which require people of able body and mind to offer assistance during an emergency.

That is a step beyond Good Samaritan laws as they legally require passersby to help in some way. These laws are in place in Vermont, Minnesota and Rhode Island, where the gross misdemeanor can come with a possible fine.

In Washington state, only first responders have some duty to provide assistance. This was expanded to all law enforcement officers in 2019.

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However, Washington does have a “failure to summon assistance” statute.

A person can be charged with failure to summon assistance if they witnessed a crime against another person, who was seriously hurt and needs help, but do not call for emergency help. There must be no threat to the person’s safety for the charge to be valid.

Both Good Samaritan laws and negligence laws protect bystanders whether or not they successfully save the victim.

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