California Appeals Court Holds Defendant Doctors Protected by Good Samaritan Law in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

A woman and her four children sued two doctors and a medical group, alleging a cause of action for the wrongful death of the woman’s husband from medical malpractice during surgery. The doctors and their medical group filed a joint motion for summary judgment, with the doctors invoking the “Good Samaritan Law” (see Bus. & Prof., § 2396) and their group arguing that, absent liability on the doctors’ part, it could have no vicarious liability as their principal. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion. The family appealed, and California’s Second District Court of Appeal affirmed.On May 15, 2012, the husband underwent scheduled, elective shoulder surgery at a hospital in East Los Angeles. A doctor performed the surgery. At the same time that a doctor was performing his shoulder surgery, two other doctor was performing heart surgery in an adjacent operating room.

During the course of the surgery, the doctor encountered “brisk bleeding on top of the subscapularis.” Upon noting the bleeding, he placed pressure on the site of the bleeding and called the adjacent operating room, where the other doctors were performing the heart surgery, and asked for emergency assistance. When the doctor asked for assistance, time was of the essence due to the blood loss that was occurring, since the continuing pressure being placed on the injury to control the bleeding alone could have caused harm to the patient’s vasculature in the upper extremity.

One of the two doctors arrived first and began repairing the vascular injury. He worked on the patient “for about an hour and a half doing the vascular repair” before the other doctor also responded to the operating room.

After the other doctor arrived, he also worked to repair the patient’s injured axillary artery. Following their initial efforts, the two new doctors noted a diminished blood flow below the repair. They reevaluated the axillary artery, which required a resection and a bypass graft. They noted there also was decreased blood flow in the right brachial artery, which is below the axillary artery. The right brachial artery was opened, and the doctors removed a clot from a blood vessel to restore blood flow in the right arm and hand. Once blood flow was restored in the right arm, the doctors “handed the patient back” to the initial doctor, who then completed his planned shoulder surgery.

After the patient was moved from the operating room, he was noted to be unresponsive, and the hospital’s neurological staff ordered an emergency CT of his brain. The CT revealed an obstruction of the blood supply to the patient’s brain. An MRI revealed that he suffered a massive stroke. Shortly thereafter, doctors removed him from life support, and he passed away on May 21, 2012.

In affirming, the appeals court first explained that the Good Samaritan Law affording immunity against civil damages to doctors who come to the assistance of other doctors in emergency situations has been included in the Business and Professions Code for almost 50 years. The legislative purpose embodied in section 2396 is to encourage doctors to render emergency medical assistance to persons in need of such care.

Section 2396’s plain statutory language includes three elements:  (1) the defendant doctor must be licensed; (2) the defendant doctor must have rendered emergency care at the request of another licensed doctor for medical complications arising from the requesting doctor’s prior medical care; and (3) the defendant doctor must have acted in good faith. Case law has developed a fourth element:  (4) physicians who treat patients requiring immediate medical care as part of their normal course of practice do not need the added inducement that immunity from civil liability would provide.

The family contended on appeal that the trial court erroneously interposed and sustained its own lack of foundation objection to an exhibit included in their opposition, namely a copy of the Call Coverage contract between the hospital and the defendant doctors’ medical group. The court found no error.

The record showed that the plaintiffs filed the Call Coverage contract into evidence as an exhibit attached to a declaration from their lawyer. Furthermore, the plaintiffs submitted a declaration from an attorney, who offered an expert legal opinion that the Call Coverage contract created pre-existing duties or obligations involving the medical group, its physicians, and the patients at the hospital. Specifically, it created obligations for the two doctors to provide emergency vascular services to patients at the hospital on an on-call basis, and the doctors were on-call doctors at the time they cared for and treated the patient.

The defendants, the appeals court held, filed a properly formatted series of separate evidentiary objections to the attorney’s declaration. Among a number of other objections, the defendant doctors interposed two objections, based on Evidence Code section 403, for a lack of foundation. The appeals court held that the defendants’ objections were sufficient to bring the issue of authenticity to the attention of the trial court. It further held that given the record, the plaintiffs’ contention that the court interposed an objection sua sponte was incorrect. Finally, the court held that even if the agreement had been admitted, the motion for summary judgment was properly granted.

The plaintiffs next contended that summary judgment must be reversed because the doctors failed to establish their section 2396 affirmative defense as a matter of law. The plaintiffs argued there were triable issues of fact regarding whether the doctors had a pre-existing duty to render care to the patient, given the evidence of the Call Coverage contract. Given that it already found the Call Coverage agreement was properly excluded from evidence, the appeals court explained it could therefore hold the motion for summary judgment was properly granted. However, it also found that even if the Call Coverage contract was admissible, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the doctors under section 2396.

The case hinged on whether there were any disputed facts concerning the fourth element required for immunity under section 2396, namely the absence of a preexisting duty of professional care on the part of the doctors to the patient. On this issue, the court saw no evidence in the record tending to show that the doctors were acting under the Call Coverage contract when they responded to the operating room at the first doctor’s request. The Call Coverage contract showed only an agreement by the group to provide surgical doctors to the hospital for its emergency room and for in-hospital patients in need of emergency surgical treatment. It did not show that the doctors were acting as assigned surgical doctors at the time they responded to the operating room.

For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants.

The wrongful death lawyers at Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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