The Perils of Rescue Unpacking South Carolina's Good Samaritan Statute, 0121 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, January 2021, #47

AuthorBy Michael W. Rabb
PositionVol. 24 Issue 4 Pg. 47

The Perils of Rescue Unpacking South Carolina's Good Samaritan Statute

No. Vol. 24 Issue 4 Pg. 47

South Carolina BAR Journal

January, 2021

By Michael W. Rabb

“Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief. The law does not ignore these reactions of the mind in tracing conduct to its consequences.” [1] Taking their name from a biblical parable, “Good Samaritan” statutes offer legal protection intended to encourage bystanders to help victims in distress by minimizing their fear of being sued or prosecuted for their errors or mistakes in rendering aid or treatment.[2]

South Carolina's Good Samaritan statute reads as follows: [a]ny person, who in good faith gratuitously renders emergency care at the scene of an accident or emergency to the victim thereof, shall not be liable for any civil damages for any personal injury as a result of any act or omission by such person in rendering the emergency care or as a result of any act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured person, except acts or omissions amounting to gross negligence or wilful or wanton misconduct.[3]

Similar to many other state Good Samaritan laws, the statute contains multiple ambiguous terms such as “good faith,” “gratuitously,” “scene of the accident or emergency,” and “emergency care,” that have yet to be interpreted by South Carolina appellate courts. The end of the statute is notable for the clear language providing that a plaintiff can hurdle the statute's immunity by proving to a jury that the rescuer's conduct rose to the level of gross negligence or wilful or wanton misconduct.

The only published opinion from South Carolina courts directly addressing the state's Good Samaritan statute is a 34 year-old Court of Appeals opinion where the court explicitly refused to interpret the statute.[4] In Ballou v. Sigma Nu General Fraternity, the South Carolina Court of Appeals addressed a trial judge's refusal to give a jury instruction on the statute in a wrongful death suit brought against a fraternity by the estate of a deceased fraternity pledge.[5] In avoiding addressing the merits, the court cleverly explained the fraternity suffered no prejudice from the trial court's failure to charge the Good Samaritan statute because the jury found the fraternity guilty of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct, which would have rendered the statute unable to aid the fraternity, due to the immunity limitation, even if charged to the jury.[6]

For an interesting example of how courts interpret these statutes, consider the landmark 2007 appellate court decision of Van Horn v. Watson.[7] In this case, a group of friends were driving home from a bar in separate vehicles around 1:30 a.m. An accident occurred when the driver of one car lost control and crashed into a curb. The other vehicle's driver pulled over after the accident and several passengers ran to help. One of the passengers testified that he dragged the plaintiff in that case out of the wrecked car after he saw smoke and liquid coming out of the vehicle. The plaintiff later brought a personal injury suit against this passenger claiming she had only sustained an injury to her vertebrae during the accident, but sustained permanent damage to her spinal cord rendering her a paraplegic after she was dragged from the car. The trial court, relying on California's Good Samaritan statute protecting rescuers, granted summary judgment for the passenger. The California Court of Appeals reversed this decision, finding the Good Samaritan statute did not provide protection for the passenger in this situation because the passenger was not rendering "emergency medical care" at the time. California's Supreme Court later reviewed and upheld the court of appeals' controversial decision. Notably, California's Good Samaritan statute and South Carolina's Good Samaritan statute are nearly identical, both containing the seemingly innocuous language that led to the controversial California opinion. This article will attempt to predict how a South Carolina court might interpret this language and in turn offer a framework to local practitioners advising clients on the applicability of the statute.

Interpretations of ambiguous language in South Carolina's statute

In unpacking South Carolina's statute, one should first address the "good faith" requirement the legislature puts in place for the Good Samaritan. In the rescue context, most states consider a rescuer to be acting in good faith so long as he is not guilty of gross, willful, or wanton negligence.[8] Good faith has been specifically defined in the rescue context by one state as "a reasonable opinion that the immediacy of the situation is such that the rendering of care should not be postponed."[9] Either of these definitions leads to a heavily fact-driven analysis that a South Carolina court would likely defer to a jury. A leading decision on this issue from the Seventh Circuit found a jury question existed on whether a physician's decision not to bill for his emergency assistance with a...

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