ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) -- Maryland's high court ruled Monday that the state's Good Samaritan Act, along with its Fire and Rescue Act, does not relieve a commercial ambulance company of liability in a medical malpractice lawsuit, regardless of whether its employee is personally covered.
On Nov. 15, 2007, plaintiff Bryson Murray, a minor who was suffering from congestion and having trouble breathing, was taken to Easton Memorial Hospital in Talbot County, Md.
At the hospital, he was fitted with an endotracheal breathing tube.
Because Easton Memorial was not equipped to handle intubated children, hospital officials sought to transfer him to the pediatric intensive care unit at the Medical Center of the University of Maryland Medical System, or UMMS, in Baltimore.
UMMS arranged for PHI Air Medical to carry out the transport by helicopter.
Present on the helicopter was a flight paramedic team that included a UMMS pediatric intensive care nurse, a PHI flight paramedic and a PHI flight nurse. Also present was Chris Barbour, a paramedic employed by defendant TransCare, who had been invited to ride along by the UMMS nurse, with PHI's permission, for orientation purposes.
TransCare, a licensed commercial ground ambulance transport company, was under contract with UMMS to provide ground ambulance services for patients between the medical center and area hospitals.
Barbour was a licensed emergency medical technician, or EMT, paramedic.
After the helicopter arrived at Easton Memorial, Barbour set up equipment and the team placed Bryson on the aircraft.
Shortly after take-off, however, the child's heart rate and oxygen blood level began to drop, because, according to the allegations in the complaint, the endotracheal tube had become dislodged and was blocking his airway.
Members of the flight team searched for a pediatric air mask to restore Bryson's breathing, but were unable to locate it.
The helicopter then landed at Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville, where the flight paramedic retrieved the mask from its storage compartment and Bryson was reintubated.
The child's cardiac activity returned to normal and the helicopter completed its trip to the medical center.
Bryson, by his mother, Karen Murray, subsequently filed a complaint against TransCare alleging medical malpractice on the basis that its employee, Barbour, had failed to provide the requisite standard of care and that TransCare was vicariously responsible.
According to the complaint, Bryson suffered hypoxic brain injury due to alleged acts and omissions of Barbour during the helicopter transport and, as a result, is blind, deaf and mentally disabled.
The complaint did not name Barbour individually as a defendant.
The Maryland Court of Appeals, in its 33-page opinion this week, affirmed the ruling of an intermediate appellate court.
The state's high court ruled a commercial ambulance company such as TransCare does not qualify for immunity under the Good Samaritan Act, regardless of whether the company's employee may qualify for immunity under the statute.
Under Maryland's Good Samaritan Act, volunteer fire departments, ambulance and rescue squads are immune from liability for ordinary negligence in certain emergency situations when their members have immunity under the statute.
Moreover, in the circumstances of the case, the court noted, TransCare did not demonstrate it functioned as a "rescue company" that has the broad immunity from liability provided by the Fire and Rescue Act.
Under the act, fire and rescue companies and their personnel enjoy broad immunity from liability for ordinary negligence arising from "acts and omissions performed in the course of their duties."
Accordingly, TransCare was not entitled to summary judgment on the basis of statutory immunity, the court concluded.
However, the court said it does not rule out the possibility that a commercial ambulance company could establish that it performs the function of a "rescue company."
"Thus, if a commercial ambulance company like TransCare could demonstrate, on the basis of undisputed facts, that it functioned as a rescue company in particular circumstances, it would be entitled to summary judgment under the Act," Judge Robert J. McDonald wrote for the court.
"Of course, we express no opinion on whether TransCare will be able to do so."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.