The Good Samaritan Law—A Nurse’s Responsibility to Act in an Emergency
The Board of Nursing has received numerous inquiries over the years regarding a nurse’s responsibility to act in an emergency situation. Many times the question is whether a nurse would be held civilly liable for refusing assistance in an emergency or possibly for rendering aid. The question becomes more complex when a nurse acts in an emergency to assist a patient when there is no physician order in place for the administration of a medication that may save the patient’s life.
Kentucky’s Good Samaritan Law states in KRS 411.148 that a nurse, among others, shall not be liable for civil damages when administering emergency care at the scene of an emergency when done for no remuneration. However, the Office of the Attorney General has questioned the constitutionality of this law under the Kentucky Constitution and it would appear that this statute would not apply to a nurse who is being paid and acts while on duty. (See OAG 79-535)
The Kentucky Nursing Laws, Chapter 314.101, states: "This chapter does not prohibit the furnishing of nursing assistance in an emergency….” That being said, nurses do not have the authority to independently prescribe medications, or to administer prescription medications without a valid medical order issued by a prescriber. The Board of Nursing has an advisory opinion statement (AOS #14) that addresses a nurse’s implementation of medical orders. A nurse may be held accountable and incur disciplinary action if the nurse administers medications without a valid medical order.
In addressing the issue regarding the administration of medications without a physician’s order, the Board of Nursing requested an opinion of the Attorney General in 1979. Specifically, the question regarded the legality of nurses carrying out orders conveyed by someone other than a licensed physician or dentist and whether there is a difference if the situation is one of emergency. This opinion states in part: “...In an emergency situation, a RN or LPN may take any procedures that the nurse is trained to perform to save the life of a patient without the necessity of having a physician’s or dentist’s order. Of course, the nurse will be judged by the factual situation—that is, is it a true emergency, does she have time to contact a physician or dentist, and is she trained to perform the procedure she seeks to perform”? (See OAG-79-506)
Common law principles provide that there is no affirmative responsibility to act in an emergency situation. However, there may be a clearly defined relationship between the parties that may impose obligations that would not otherwise exist. In some instances, failure to render assistance may lead to liability if the injury is aggravated through inaction. On the other hand, if a nurse chooses to act in an emergency, the nurse may be held civilly liable for any negligence. Nurses would be well advised to follow any employer or facility policy or established protocol on how to render aid in an emergency situation. In addition, the nurse must adhere to current standards of nursing practice and may be held accountable for actions that are negligent or inconsistent with the practice of nursing.
This article, while addressing the Kentucky Nursing Laws, does not purport to be formal legal advice. The Board encourages nurses to seek advice from an attorney when confronted with civil liability issues. Nurses may also want to review their malpractice insurance to determine whether their policy covers emergency care situations.