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Good Samaritan immunity under the New Jersey Good Samaritan Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:62A-1, encompasses only those situations in which a physician (or other volunteer) comes, by chance, upon a victim who requires immediate emergency medical care, at a location compromised by lack of adequate facilities, equipment, expertise, sanitation and staff. A hospital or medical center does not qualify under the terms of the Act.
Charmaine Velazquez was a patient at St. Peter's Medical Center (the Medical Center) for the purpose of delivering a baby. Dr. Teresa Jiminez was her attending physician. Complications occurred during the course of the delivery because Mrs. Velazquez's baby was suffering from bilateral shoulder dystocia (both of his shoulders were lodged against his mother's public bone). After delivering the baby's head, Dr. Jiminez was unable to deliver the rest of the baby's body. She then called for assistance, and Dr. Angela Ranzini responded. After unsuccessfully attempting to complete the delivery vaginally, Dr. Ranzini assisted in preparing Mrs. Velazquez and the baby (who was, by virtue of his position, at risk of suffering from a loss of oxygen) for an emergency Caesarean section. The baby, Conor, ultimately was born severely brain damaged, spent his life in a dependent state and died of pneumonia before reaching the age of three.
In July 1994, Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez filed suit against the Medical Center and its staff members, and against Dr. Jiminez, Dr. Ranzini, and others for their negligence during Conor's delivery. Before trial, Dr. Jiminez, the Medical Center, and other defendants settled with Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez, leaving only Dr. Ranzini as a defendant. Dr. Ranzini then moved for summary judgment claiming immunity under the Good Samaritan Act. The trial court denied the motion as a matter of law, holding that the Act does not immunize physicians responding to emergencies within a hospital. Dr. Ranzini alone went to trial. At trial, Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez's experts testified that Dr. Ranzini deviated from the standard of care. Dr. Ranzini's experts testified that her conduct conformed to all applicable medical standards and that Conor's condition resulted from the negligence of Dr. Jiminez. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez and assigned three percent liability to Dr. Ranzini. The trial court, on its own, entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) in favor of Dr. Ranzini, holding that her liability could not be regarded as a substantial factor in the harm that resulted to Conor. In so ruling, the trial court reiterated that the Good Samaritan Act did not operate to insulate Dr. Ranzini from suit.
Does the Good Samartian Act provide immunity to a hospital physician who assists a patient at the hospital during a medical emergency (such as Dr. Ranzini)?
In its present form, the statute immunizes any Good Samaritan who "renders emergency care at the scene of an accident or emergency to the victim or victims thereof, or while transporting the victim or victims thereof to a hospital or other facility where treatment or care is to be rendered." The Appellate Division read that new language as revelatory of a legislative understanding that "the scene of an accident or emergency" is somewhere other than a hospital or treatment facility, which is staffed and equipped to render medical care. That is certainly one fair interpretation of the statute, which scholars have approved. "By distinguishing between these two types of places, the legislature operationally defined 'scene of an emergency' as a place other than a hospital . . . ." More fundamental to us is the notion that if the Legislature had intended the locationally unlimited immunity urged by Dr. Ranzini, it simply could have said so. There would have been no reason for it to include, at the Act's inception, the limiting language "at the scene of an accident or emergency." There likewise would have been no subsequent need to extend immunity explicitly to persons rendering emergency care while transporting a victim to a medical facility. All of those circumstances would have been encompassed by a statute that immunized anyone rendering emergency medical care. The Legislature apparently intended a circumscription of Good Samaritan immunity as evidenced by the limiting language it chose. That narrowly tailored interpretation does the least violence to our citizens' common-law right to institute tort actions against those whose negligence injures them. It thus conforms to our rules regarding the interpretation of statutes in derogation of the common law and statutes granting immunity. Moreover, it gives full throat to the goals underlying the legislation: to encourage the rendering of medical care to those who would not otherwise receive it, by physicians who come upon such patients by chance, without the benefit of the expertise, assistance, equipment or sanitation [***40] that is available in a hospital or medical setting
Obviously, in enacting our Good Samaritan law, the Legislature was aware that a hospital patient is present in that venue for the very purpose of receiving medical care and is not a person who ordinarily would lack care in the absence of Good Samaritan immunity. Further, physicians in a hospital ordinarily do not come upon a hospital patient "by chance" as would be the case if an accident or emergency occurred on a roadway. Most importantly, our Legislature knew that the fundamental problem facing a Good Samaritan on the street (the ability to do little more than render first aid under less than optimal circumstances) is not present in a fully staffed and equipped facility like a hospital, whose very purpose is "to make available the human skill and physical materiel of medical science to the end that the patient's health be restored. In other words, the "scene of an accident or emergency" reasonably should be understood to incorporate only those locations at which the provision of adequate and necessary medical care is compromised by the existing conditions.