Whoever coined the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” likely was inspired by something other than the liability implications of pro bono medical services, but that proverbial wisdom may have no clearer application in the health law arena than the case of the volunteer youth sports team physician. Admittedly, filed claims against volunteer team doctors are rare, but they are not unheard of, and for the unwary, such cases can bring severe and unexpected professional consequences.
Like most states, Virginia has a so-called “Good Samaritan” law that protects individuals (including physicians) who render emergency care from most civil liability. However, while the issue has not been specifically addressed by the Supreme Court of Virginia, other states have held their respective Good Samaritan laws inapplicable in the volunteer team physician context. And although Virginia’s statute includes a provision specifically limiting the liability of volunteer team doctors, the context of that protection is narrower than it might appear at first glance. Physicians should be cognizant of the limitations of statutory “Good Samaritan” protection before undertaking volunteer team physician positions that may expose them to more liability than they might anticipate.
Good Samaritan statute
Virginia’s “Good Samaritan” statute, Va. Code § 8.01-225, generally provides that “any person who, in good faith, renders emergency care or assistance, without compensation, to any ill or injured person” shall be immune from civil liability for damages arising from that care. But common conceptions that all gratuitous emergency medical care is protected under Virginia law misstate and oversimplify the actual impact of the law.
Volunteer team physicians looking to Virginia’s Good Samaritan statute should consider at least two concerns about whether it offers full protection from suit. First, in Creasy v. U.S., 645 F. Supp. 853, 856 (W.D. Va. 1986), a federal court has held that “volunteers are normally liable for negligence in Virginia,” notwithstanding the commonwealth’s Good Samaritan law. Although this case did not arise in the context of volunteer team physicians and does not come from the Supreme Court of Virginia, it is one of the few judicial interpretations of the law in this area and therefore might be persuasive in other circumstances.
Secondly, to receive protection under the Good Samaritan statute, the medical care must be provided in the context of an “emergency.” Some of the injuries that occur in youth sporting events may fall short of this standard. Even when treatment is clearly emergent – in the case of a fracture or concussion, for example – the variability raises categorical uncertainty potentially requiring discrete physician liability assessments with each presented case. Even broadly interpreted, the “emergency” prerequisite potentially deprives physicians of the kind of bright dividing line that would give them confidence in their ability to provide volunteer team physician care without fear of legal repercussions and suit for simple negligence.
Where Good Samaritan statutes have fallen short of providing protection to volunteer team physicians in other states, it has usually been because the care was deemed non-emergent, and therefore outside the purview of the statute.
Specific protection for school-sponsored teams
Volunteer team physicians in Virginia are fortunate to have explicit statutory protection, but only in some circumstances. A subsection of the general Good Samaritan law offers immunity from liability to volunteer team doctors for school-sponsored teams, including teams sponsored by private and religious schools. The statute specifically states that any licensed physician who “renders emergency medical care or emergency treatment to a patient in an athletic event sponsored by a public, private, or religious elementary, middle, or high school while acting without compensation as a team physician, shall not be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission related to such care and treatment.”
Virginia is somewhat unique in providing this specific protection for volunteer team physicians. But before assuming the protection applies, physicians should know the limits of the provision. It protects only physicians providing care to school-sponsored (likely interpreted to mean school-affiliated) teams, so recreational and community leagues fall outside the scope of the law’s protection.
Moreover, like the general Good Samaritan statute, this provision purports to protect only “emergency medical care or emergency treatment.” Although the issue has not been litigated in a reported Virginia case, given the specific focus of the statute, it likely offers broader protection than the general Good Samaritan law explained above. And, as a practical matter, viable claims of medical liability are most likely to arise in the context of an emergency, rendering the statute a useful protection in a significant majority of cases. Nonetheless, physicians should understand that even this specific statutory empowerment is not a carte blanche grant of immunity.
All physicians looking to volunteer their medical services for youth sports teams should look into whether their professional liability insurance carrier will provide coverage for that involvement. This is imperative where those teams are in recreational leagues unaffiliated with a school given the reduced statutory liability protection in that context. Some insurers (whether they be private insurers or self-insured hospital systems) do not cover this type of activity, and physicians should understand that they may be subject to personal liability where that is the case. Your broker, insurance provider, or attorney should be able to address the scope of your specific policy.
Despite the relative liability protections noted above, physicians should also understand that Good Samaritan statutes do not preclude Board of Medicine investigations, which any competitor or parent could initiate via a complaint. Likewise, physicians cannot rely on participant liability waivers, which generally do not function as a bar to litigation in Virginia.
This article is not to suggest that physicians should not undertake volunteer team physician positions, but to ensure they approach such opportunities with eyes wide open about the possible liability exposure issues. Virginia is comparatively protective of physicians in this role, but, like a football helmet, that protection is limited.
Timothy D. Patterson is an attorney in the Richmond office of Hancock, Daniel, Johnson & Nagle PC, practicing in the areas of medical malpractice litigation and regulatory board defense.