Texas Court of Appeals upholds the constitutionality of the statute giving a Good Samaritan immunity to emergency care providers

Gardner v. Childrens Medical Center of Dallas — S.W.3d —, 2013 WL 2389854 (Tex. App. – Dallas)

Section 74.154 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code exempts providers of hospital emergency care from liability for malpractice that falls below “willful and wanton negligence.”  This exemption parallels the “Good Samaritan” immunity granted by many states to unpaid providers of medical care (see, e.g., Chamley v. Khokha, 730 N.W.2d 864 (N.D. 2007) (both actual and expected remuneration preclude medical care providers from claiming immunity under North Dakota’s Good Samaritan Act)).

This exemption was challenged by the parents of a child whose treatment in a hospital emergency room resulted in brain damage, cerebral palsy and blindness. They argued that the exemption violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional. The parents first made this argument at the trial, urging the judge not to give jurors the “willful and wanton” instruction. The judge decided to give the instruction as required by the statute. The jury returned a verdict for the defendants, and the parents appealed. Their equal protection challenge was based on the fact that the statute singled out hospital emergency personnel as its sole beneficiary. Other providers of emergency care did not receive the special exemption.

The Texas Court of Appeals (Dallas) ruled that the exemption is constitutional and dismissed the appeal. The court reasoned that extending a Good Samaritan immunity to emergency care providers allows those providers to purchase insurance against malpractice liability at an affordable price. Affordable insurance incentivizes physicians and other medical personnel to do emergency work under difficult conditions. As the court explained, “emergency room physicians [are] required to treat anyone who walked into an emergency room, often without benefit of medical history, and under extreme time pressure.” The court wasn’t troubled by the statute’s differentiation between patients receiving emergency care in a hospital emergency room and patients that receive emergency medical care in a non-covered setting. The court decided that this disparate legal treatment does not fail the requisite rational-basis review even though it produces “some inequity” on the ground.