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Law School Case Brief

Breazeal v. Henry Mayo Newhall Mem'l Hosp. - 234 Cal. App. 3d 1329, 286 Cal. Rptr. 207 (1991)

Rule:

An emergency within the meaning of the Good Samaritan statutes exists when there is an urgent medical circumstance of so pressing a character that some kind of action must be taken. It would seem obvious that in determining whether a patient's condition constitutes such an emergency the trier of fact must consider the gravity, the certainty, and the immediacy of the consequences to be expected if no action is taken. However, beyond observing that these are the relevant considerations, the variety of situations that would qualify as emergencies under any reasonable set of criteria is too great to admit of anything approaching a bright line rule as to just how grave, how certain, and how immediate such consequences have to be.

Facts:

Plaintiff-appellant mother filed suit for professional negligence and wrongful death against defendants-respondents doctors for negligent infliction of emotional distress.  The mother's eight-year-old son died of epiglottitis, a serious but usually treatable condition, while under defendants' care. The trial court found that the evidence established the affirmative defense of Good Samaritan immunity under California statute. The trial court granted defendants' motion for nonsuit, even though the child died after the initial emergency intervention had ended and while he was diagnosed as "stable." The trial court found that the uncontradicted evidence established that defendants responded to a continuing emergency and rendered care to Matthew in good faith, having no preexisting duty to do so. On appeal, plaintiff argued that defendants' immunity ended when her son's condition was stabilized and other doctors could have been substituted.

Issue:

In plaintiff mother's cause for professional negligence, the the trial court correctly grant defendant doctors' motion for nonsuit based on immunity under the Good Samaritan statute, even though the child died after defendants' initial emergency intervention had ended and while diagnosed as "stable?"

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeal of California affirmed the judgment of nonsuit on plaintiff mother's causes of action for professional negligence and wrongful death of her son in favor of defendant doctors because they were clothed with immunity under the Good Samaritan statutes throughout their emergency care of her son. Noting that the stability was being maintained only by means of an artificial airway that had to be constantly monitored to prevent a new obstruction, and that urgent need of care persisted in order to preserve the child's life after death had been narrowly avoided, the Court held that the emergency circumstances persisted until the child's death. The Court noted that the statutory purpose of the Good Samaritan statutes would be seriously undermined if immunity were denied to physicians who provided care where care was plainly and urgently needed, merely because a jury could conclude with the benefit of hindsight that another physician would have provided superior care. The Court held that a normal doctor-patient relationship was not created by defendants' failure to move the child to a pediatric hospital. Nor was the Good Samaritan defense contradicted by one defendant's telling plaintiff the emergency was past, or by defendants having left the hospital after the surgery. Because the immunity extended to the cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, the dismissal of that cause of action was also affirmed.

As for the applicable standard of review, the Court explained that nonsuit for a defendant is proper if a plaintiff presents insufficient evidence on an element of the case.

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