Law School Case Brief
Burciaga v. St. John's Hosp. - 187 Cal. App. 3d 710, 232 Cal. Rptr. 75 (1986)
A staff physician of a hospital, who treats another doctor's patient at a hospital in response to a medical emergency, is protected by the Good Samaritan laws, Cal Bus. & Prof. Code, § 2395 (providing that a physician who renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency is not liable for any damages as a result of any acts or omissions in rendering the emergency care), and Cal Bus. & Prof. Code, § 2396 (providing that no physician who renders emergency care to a person for a medical complication arising from prior care by another person on the request of the other person is liable for any damages as a result of any acts or omissions in rendering such emergency medical care). The heart of the application of the Good Samaritan statutes is the inquiry whether a duty of professional care pre-existed the emergency. Hence, a medical emergency arising from a child's birth under an obstetrician's supervision occurring while a pediatrician was treating his patients in the hospital, who then treated the child on the obstetrician's emergency request, created no duty to the child on the part of the pediatrician.
Plaintiff William Burciaga, born at defendant St. John's Hospital, was delivered by his mother's obstetrician, Foster Taft. Taft observed that the umbilical cord was entangled about William's neck and feet and that he suffered from severe interuterine anoxia. Taft requested a pediatrician to the delivery room "stat. Defendant Gibson, a pediatrician then visiting his hospital patients, responded to the call within a minute. He discovered that the infant was cyanotic and "having respiratory distress." Gibson applied suction to William and administered oxygen. William was transferred that evening to another hospital.
Six years later, plaintiff minor brought an action against defendant pediatrician Gibson for injuries sustained at birth that left him with permanent neurological damage. The trial court awarded defendant summary judgment, finding that he was shielded from liability based on the Good Samaritan Laws, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 2395, 2396. Plaintiff appealed, alleging the Good Samaritan Laws did not protect defendant because as an active member of the hospital staff, defendant had a duty to treat infants born at the hospital, and that duty therefore excluded application of the statute.
Was defendant pediatrician liable for the injuries sustained by plaintiff minor?
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's summary judgment. The court held that the pediatrician, a staff physician of the hospital, was protected by the Good Samaritan laws, even though treatment was within his specialty. Sections 2395 and 2396 declare no restriction concerning the site of an emergency. It is a desirable social objective to encourage prompt medical care to persons who might not otherwise receive it, regardless of the location of the emergency. Neither do sections 2395 and 2396 limit immunity to only those physicians treating patients outside the physicians' specialties. Such a restriction would deny victims the benefit of knowledgeable and experienced care and would not promote the legislative purpose of inducing physicians to provide medical care to those in need.
The heart of the application of the Good Samaritan statutes is the inquiry whether a duty of professional care pre-existed the emergency. Gibson's declaration provides a reasonable inference that he did not have an existing duty to treat William and that he acted as a volunteer. William was not pediatrician Gibson's patient, and Taft did not customarily refer patients to him. Gibson was present in the hospital only because he was treating his own hospitalized patients. He cancelled his office appointments for the day in order to treat William. That a medical emergency fortuitously occurred while he was in the hospital created no duty to plaintiff William. There was no evidence that Gibson was employed by the hospital, and it is not a reasonable inference that because he was an active staff member, the hospital had designated him to treat newborns in the event of an emergency.
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