Across the country, many brave individuals devote their careers or volunteer their time doing something that is vital to our communities: saving lives. First responders such as EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, or ski patrollers must pass state and/or national certification requirements in order to perform their thankless efforts. But even highly trained individuals cannot always stop the course of fate. Sometimes lives are lost, and occasionally, first responders are named as defendants in wrongful death actions.
Like most states, Connecticut has enacted laws to protect both full time and volunteer first responders and medical providers from liability. These laws, commonly known as "Good Samaritan Laws," exist to protect both paid and volunteer first responders. However, the protection the Good Samaritan Laws afford may be subject to limitations.
In Connecticut, there is no general legal obligation to come to the aid of a person in need of emergency medical assistance. To encourage trained people to do so, the Good Samaritan Law, (Conn. Gen. Stat § 52-557b) grants immunity to medical professionals and individuals trained in CPR for acts or omissions which "may constitute ordinary negligence" in the course of administering emergency assistance. However, subsection (a) of the statute does not protect anyone providing medical assistance as part of the ordinary course of their employment, such as emergency room doctors, or nurses.
Subsection (b) of the statute extends protection to emergency medical service personnel and other trained first responders such as police, firefighters, teachers, lifeguards and ski patrollers, who render emergency first aid, without regard to whether they are acting in the course of their employment. Although EMTs and paramedics are not specifically mentioned in the statute, they would appear to fall within the broad category of "emergency medical service personnel." By providing immunity to first responders acting in the course of their employment, the Connecticut Good Samaritan Law offers broader protection than similar laws in many other states.
This immunity only applies to those actively rendering first aid, and does not apply to first responders on their way to responding to an emergency. In Pellegrino v. Town of Branford, 2003 WL 536619 (Conn. Super.), for example, the court refused to apply protection to someone merely driving an ambulance. See also Shomsky v. City of Shelton Police Dep't, 1997 WL 746380 (Conn. Super.) (immunity did not apply to claim alleging negligent delay in dispatching ambulance).
More significantly, the immunity "does not apply to acts or omissions constituting gross, willful or wanton negligence." While an injured party or estate has no viable claim against a first responder for ordinary negligence during the administration of first aid, then, the statute leaves open the question of whether willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct is actionable. This question is the subject of much controversy among the Connecticut courts. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Appellate Court has ruled on this issue, and the lower courts have reached contradictory conclusions.
It seems clear that the Legislature intended to strike a balance between protecting first responders from liability for simple mistakes during emergencies, and preserving the right of injured people to seek recourse for more egregious misconduct. However, despite carving out an exception from the statutory immunity, the Legislature did not expressly create a cause of action imposing liability for willful, intentional or grossly negligent acts. This issue is complicated by the fact that, under Connecticut law, there is no common law claim for gross, willful or wanton negligence. Because Connecticut does not recognize degrees of negligence, allegations of "gross" negligence or "ordinary" negligence are legally indistinguishable – there exists only a single claim for negligence. Thus, the courts have been divided as to whether the Good Samaritan Law should be interpreted to create an entirely new cause of action because the statute distinguishes between regular and gross negligence.
One of the more recent lower court decisions, Dziadowicz v. American Medical Response of Connecticut, Inc., 2012 WL 527651 (Conn. Super.), ruled that a plaintiff could not recover from emergency medical personnel for gross negligence. The court explained: "Because the legislature did not explicitly create a cause of action in gross negligence, and since the appellate courts of this state have explicitly declined to recognize one, this court is without authority to permit the plaintiff to maintain such a cause of action in gross negligence." Id. at *5.
The same conclusion was reached in Croteau v. American Medical Response of Connecticut, 1997 WL 435050 (Conn. Super.). After examining the legislative history, the court concluded that the statute's purpose was merely to confer immunity, and not to create a new cause of action. Because existing appellate case law made clear that no action for gross negligence is recognized in Connecticut, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s claim alleging gross negligence must be stricken from the Complaint.
Other courts have reached a different conclusion. In Glorioso v. Burlington Police Dep’t, 48 Conn.Supp. 10 (2003), the court concluded that "[a] plaintiff who seeks to make a claim under the exception from immunity for gross, wilful, and wanton negligence faces a definite problem in pleading. If that plaintiff pleads only negligence, with the intention of providing that the acts or omissions actually constituted gross, wilful or wanton negligence, the claim is at risk under the immunity provision ... If the plaintiff pleads the words of the exception ... the response, made by the [defendant] in the present case, is that Connecticut does not recognize distinct causes of action for gross negligence." Id. at 15. The court resolved this dilemma by concluding that "a cause of action for negligence of various degrees, including gross negligence, exists at common law and that liability for gross negligence was not abolished by the Good Samaritan law." Id. at 17. Another court reached the same result in Hansen v. Mohegan Fire Co., Inc., 2001 WL 1249945 (Conn. Super.).
Likewise, in Cordero v. American Medical Response, 2004 WL 1098509 (Conn. Super.), the court discussed the split of authority before ruling that a claim for gross negligence could properly be asserted. It opined that,"[w]hether viewed as creating, by implication, a cause of action for gross negligence that does not otherwise exist, or as not abolishing such a cause of action that does exist at common law, the more persuasive view is that a plaintiff confronted with a Good Samaritan law defense should be allowed to plead gross negligence." Id. at *2. The court reasoned that this was the better view "because the immunity provided by the statute is limited, and a plaintiff should be allowed to claim more than the level of negligence to which the statutory immunity applies ... The contrary view would lead to the conclusion that by not providing immunity for gross negligence, the legislature was not providing immunity for a cause of action that did not exist anyway. A statute should not be interpreted in a manner that creates an absurd result." Id. citing Comm'r of Transp. v. Kahn, 262 Conn. 257, 275 (2003) and Glorioso, 48 Conn.Supp. at 17.
The differences of opinion among the lower court judges derive from their disagreement over whether the statute should be strictly construed. The court in Dziadowicz suggested that judges who have concluded § 52–557b implicitly creates a cause of action for gross negligence appear to have disregarded the principle that statutes in derogation of the common law are to be strictly construed, and the Legislature’s intention to change the common law must be fairly expressed. See Ames v. Comm'r of Motor Vehicles, 267 Conn. 524, 532 (2004).
Because the appellate courts have not yet addressed the issue which has resulted in such a clear split in authority among the lower courts, plaintiffs and defendants in Connecticut are left with an uncertain legal conundrum. It is clear that a plaintiff who wishes to sue a first responder for ordinary negligence is likely to be out of luck. Even if the plaintiff can carry the heavy burden of establishing that the defendant's misconduct was sufficiently wilful or egregious to constitute gross negligence, he or she must still hope that the judge is willing to recognize that a claim for gross negligence exists at all. By the same token, first responders cannot be certain that they are shielded from liability, and if they are sued, they can expect that any alleged mistake will be characterized in the harshest terms.
If the legislative intent was to protect first responders from ordinary negligence only, while holding them liable for more serious misconduct, then a separate cause of action should be created expressly, to eliminate any confusion. On the other hand, if the intention was to protect the first responders from any liability at all, than the Good Samaritan Law should be amended to provide blanket immunity for any negligence, regardless of degree.
If you or your company require a more in-depth interpretation of the protection that the Good Samaritan Law provides, we would happy to assist you.