ASHI and MEDIC First Aid Blog

December 11, 2019

Well, Now There's This: Unexpected Liability Considerations About Performing CPR

By guest blogger Bill Rowe, Director, Content Development

I am not a lawyer… always wanted to say that…

I saw an article the other day about the legal liability of CPR. Not for doing it, but for not doing it. Sorry for the tongue twister, but you heard it right: some preliminary research, presented at the American Heart Association’s Resuscitation Science Symposium 2019 last month, actually indicated there was a higher legal risk for not doing CPR compared to when CPR is attempted.

A review of 170 legal cases from 1989 to 2019 in which CPR was attempted or withheld, and resulted in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, had surprising results. The majority of them were related to delayed or inadequate CPR with only a handful related to the performance of CPR.  Also surprising were the monetary damages paid with about $120,000 paid when CPR was done and $620,000,000 paid when it was delayed or not done at all!

Now that I have your attention, it might be helpful to do a brief refresher on the legal considerations CPR and first aid trained providers face, and, most importantly, the effect that legal fears have on the willingness for a trained bystander to get involved in a medical emergency.

The short version of the point we all need to make with our students in our CPR, AED, and first aid training classes is that legal liability is almost non-existent if someone acts prudently and within the scope of the training they received.

The reason this is so important is that many trained bystanders are deciding not to get involved in medical emergencies. A big part of that is the fear of liability.

Primarily, CPR and first aid training guidelines have been developed to emphasize knowledge and skills that help, but do not create further harm. Medical treatments, such as surgical procedures and giving medications, are indicated as beyond the ability of first aiders to provide.

Historically, first aid providers are looked at as good Samaritans as described in the Book of Luke in the Christian Bible, providing immediate help to someone in need with no compensation in return. Over time, protections for bystanders who help in a medical emergency have strengthened through legal precedence. Good Samaritan laws and administrative rules have been established to explain these protections.

Finally, with modern day EMS, the responsibilities of those trained in CPR and first aid have a very limited timeframe in which to help, decreasing the need to provide detailed or extended care.

All in all, CPR and first aid skills are simple, designed to do no more harm in a limited period of time, and have a proven track record to not result in legal liability. Trained bystanders need to have confidence in this.

Perhaps it is easier to explain why a person would be at risk when helping in an emergency, rather than why they would not.

As mentioned above, trained providers need to act within the scope of the training they have received. Exceeding this opens the door to liability, especially when actions can result in unexpected threats and harm to the ill or injured person. Most Americans live in a tiered system of care in which more advanced training and skills are quickly available from responding EMS providers, eliminating the need for higher levels of care from bystanders.

It is unfortunate that it needs to be mentioned, but intentional actions of harm or completely misguided actions are not protected. If a person intentionally or without a clue hurts another, regardless of whether an emergency exists or not, liability protection is unlikely.

Fortunately, compensation is an unlikely situation for most CPR and first aid trained providers. Good Samaritan legal protections are based on the premise that there is no expectation of compensation for the actions taken in an emergency. This should be a consideration when first aid providers are obligated and compensated in some manner to provide first aid services, such as with an organized industrial emergency response team. That is a whole separate area of discussion regarding the legal concept of duty to act.

To return to the article on liability, maybe we should frame up this space of legal protection: that a trained provider, who acts prudently and without expectation of compensation, has enormous legal protection when helping in an emergency, and that the confidence in this can make a decision to not help a moot point.

As I said, I’m not a lawyer. My experience is in carefully listening to them and distilling the main legal points into our MEDIC First Aid and ASHI training programs. There are some great online resources for additional information on Good Samaritan Laws and AED liability.

And, if you are looking for more detailed information, consult a lawyer…

Thanks for being out there and doing what you are doing.

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