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Was Dr. who treated tornado victim immune under Good Samaritan Law?

CASE ON POINT: Willingham v. Hudson, 2005 WL 1579766 S.E.2d -GA

ISSUE: Good Samaritan Laws protecting physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers exist in virtually all of the United States. The laws protect physicians from suits for medical errors or malpractice unless their conduct is willful, wanton, or reckless. Whether or not the Good Samaritan Law was applicable was the issue in this extraordinary Georgia case. An off-duty physician was called to a hospital to treat victims of a tornado that swept two counties in Georgia. When one of the victims who was treated by a physician, who responded to the hospital's call for help, eventually had her leg amputated, she sued the physician. The physician invoked the Good Samaritan law as a defense.

CASE FACTS: On February 14, 2002, a tornado struck Camilla and Mitchell Counties, Georgia. Local hospitals were inundated with severely injured tornado victims. Between 2:00 am and 3:00 am, during the crisis, an emergency room nurse at Grady General Hospital contacted Dr. Mark Hudson, a local family practitioner, and requested his assistance in treating the influx of patients at the hospital. Although Dr. Hudson was not the on-call physician nor the ER backup physician on that date, he and other local physicians arrived at the hospital and began treating injured victims, emergency Medical Services (EMS) transported Charlotte Willingham, an injured tornado victim, to Grady General Hospital for medical treatment. She was suffering from a 20 cmx14cm larceration to her right thigh, which was open to the bone exposing the femoral artery; a laceration to her right foot and lacerations to her earlobe. Upon her arrival at the hospital, several different physicians treated Willingham. Another ER physician began to debride and irrigate the wound on her right thigh. However, when Willingham began to feel uncomfortable, that ER physician stopped the procedure and asked Dr. Hudson to transport her to the operating room where the procedure could be completed under anesthesia. Dr. Hudson treated Willingham's wound. However, before he loosely sutured the right thigh wound, he explored and irrigated it using saline and bacitracin. The patient remained hospitalized for further treatment and observation. Several days later, a "foul smelling purulent drainage" was coming from Willingham's right foot wound. Willingham could not move her toes. A following up x-ray revealed a "soft-tissue injury with gas in the soft tissues of the mid foot laterally" and "a questionable radiopaque foreign body" near the foot laceration. Thereafter, Willingham was transferred to Archbold Memorial Hospital where she was diagnosed as having a "necrotizing infection of the right foot with compartment syndrome and necrosis of the foot and lower leg." As a result of the infection, Willingham's right leg was amputated. Willingham sued Dr. Hudson for medical malpractice, alleging that he was negligent in rendering treatment to her, which resulted in the amputation of her leg. The trial court granted Dr. Hudson's motion for summary judgment on the basis of Good Samaritan immunity under state law. Willingham appealed.

COURT'S OPINION: The Court of Appeals of Georgia affirmed the judgment of the lower court. The court held, inter alia, that based upon the facts and evidence presented in the case the "Good Samaritan" immunity defense applied.

LEGAL COMMENTARY: The plaintiff raised several issue son appeal. The first was that the Good Samaritan law was tailored to apply "at the scene" of an emergency. The court rejected the contention that immunity under the Good Samaritan act was limited to the "actual scene" of an emergency. The court was satisfied that the uncontroverted evidence showed that the tornado resulted in an irregular influx of injured victims and created an abnormal situation, for which Dr. Hudson was called upon to render emergency treatment. The court found that the hospital, faced with an influx of victims from a natural disaster, was, in fact, "the scene of an emergency." Willingham also contended that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Dr. Hudson rendered "emergency care." She argued that Dr. Hudson did not actually render "emergency care." The court found that while the term "emergency care" was not defined in Georgia law, the Supreme Court of Georgia had defined the term as "the performance of necessary personal services during an unforeseen circumstance that calls for immediate action." The court concluded that the definition did not require that the victim be in critical or in a life-threatening condition. Further, the court noted that although Willingham maintained that she was not in "critical" condition, a triage nurse had classified her as a "five" or "critical" patient. Finally, the court rejected Willingham's contention that Dr. Hudson had a duty to report to the emergency room to render aid at the time he did. The court noted that Dr. Hudson was not on-call and had not duty to respond to the request for assistance in the hospital's emergency room and thus was entitled to the full measure of immunity provided under the state's Good Samaritan law.

Meet the Editor & Publisher: A. David Tammelleo, JD, is a nationally recognized authority on health care law. Practicing law for over 40 years, he concentrates in health care law with the Rhode Island firm of A. David Tammelleo & Associates. He has presented seminars on medical, nursing and hospital law throughout the United States. In addition to his writings as Editor of Medical Law's, Nursing Law's & Hospital Law's Regan Reports, his legal articles have been published in the most prestigious health law journals. A profile writer, his thousands of articles, as well as his achievements as an attorney and lecturer, have won him recognition in Martindale-Hubbell's bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers, Marquis Who's Who in American Law, Who's Who in American and Who's Who in the World.
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Title Annotation:Medical Law Case on Point
Author:Tammelleo, A. David
Publication:Medical Law's Regan Report
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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