Better for Good Samaritan Ultrarunners to Pass By on the Other Side? (Part 1)

As I mention on my About page, I ran my first ultramarathon in April 2014 at the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer in Hampton, Virginia.  The 24-hour race takes place at Sandy Bottom Nature Park on a 3.75 mile, USATF-certified loop course (shaped somewhat like a ‘q’).  Obviously my frame of reference is very limited, but I feel like the race was the ideal introduction to the world of ultramarathons for me.  There were plenty of volunteers and well-placed and well-stocked aid stations (little food was provided but there was plenty of water and sports drink).  Because it was a loop course, I was able to set up my bag of gear and goodies, knowing that it would be there the next time I came around to complete a loop.  The loop course also gave me plenty of opportunities to see the race leaders, something that would never have happened on a point-to-point course.

Sadly, the loop course also forced me to witness a frightening situation: a fellow runner collapsed on the course in the afternoon.  I saw him lying on the ground from about a hundred yards away and arrived where he was just as other runners were beginning to administer CPR.  Because we were on the back side of the course, another runner ran back to the start/finish to get assistance.  Emergency medical personnel arrived shortly thereafter and evacuated him to a hospital.  Thankfully, the runner is now on the road to recovery and that is due, in part, to the actions of a handful of his fellow runners who were in the right place at the right time.

That those runners could act to save this man’s life without fear of reprisal should they have injured him while administering CPR is the subject of this post.  Regardless of whether they were aware of it at the time, in Virginia they were protected from liability in a civil lawsuit by what is commonly known as a Good Samaritan law.  The law (a version of which exists in every state) takes its name from Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan as depicted by Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Wijnants.

The parable isn’t long, so I’ll quote it in full:

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Good Samaritan Law in Virginia

In Virginia, the Good Samaritan law is found in Va. Code § 8.01-225.  The entire section is somewhat lengthy so I’ll stick to the sections that are relevant for the topic at hand.  The first section reads like something of a catch-all and provides that anyone who:

In good faith, renders emergency care or assistance, without compensation, to any ill or injured person (i) at the scene of an accident, fire, or any life-threatening emergency; (ii) at a location for screening or stabilization of an emergency medical condition arising from an accident, fire, or any life-threatening emergency; or (iii) en route to any hospital, medical clinic, or doctor’s office, shall not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions resulting from the rendering of such care or assistance.

I’ve put two important qualifiers in bold and italicized the portion that grants immunity from civil liability.  Subsections (i)-(iii) specify the situations in which this section applies.  “Good faith” refers to the standard of care that must be met in order to protect a person from liability.  Writing in Suffolk University Law School’s Journal of Health & Biomedical Law (pdf) , Professor Victoria Sutton (Paul Whitfield Horn Professor and Director of the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law) points out that “Good faith includes, but is not limited to, ‘a reasonable opinion that the immediacy of the situation is such that the rendering of care should not be postponed.'”  In addition, “Good faith is the lowest, or easiest, standard to meet with no other qualifications.”  For that reason, Professor Sutton ranks Virginia in what she calls “Level One” with 17 other states that “provide the greatest incentive to the Good Samaritan.”

In addition, note that in order to claim the protection of this statute, one must be acting without compensation.  In other words, the protections of this statute are available to volunteers, but not to medical professionals at their place of work; a doctor who happens upon the scene of an accident on his way home would, however, be protected by this statute while rendering care without pay.  In the specific case that came up during my race, there’s another section of Virginia’s Good Samaritan law that would apply (subsection A.6):

Any person who . . . In good faith and without compensation, renders or administers emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) . . . or other emergency life-sustaining or resuscitative treatments or procedures which have been approved by the State Board of Health to any sick or injured person, whether at the scene of a fire, an accident, or any other place . . . shall be deemed qualified to administer such emergency treatments and procedures and shall not be liable for acts or omissions resulting from the rendering of such emergency resuscitative treatments or procedures.

Here we have the same qualifiers of “good faith” and “without compensation,” but the section also adds that such a person “shall be deemed qualified” to perform CPR.  Thus, even a bystander who has not been trained in CPR would likely be able to claim the protections of this statute.

Diagram demonstrating proper CPR technique

Because CPR involves the continuous and forceful compression of the chest cavity, injuries can and do occur from the treatment itself.  Most commonly, fractured ribs or sternal fractures are reported, although other more serious injuries have been known to occur.

I don’t know whether any injuries resulted from the runners’ administering of CPR at my race (although even if I did know, I don’t think writing about it here would be respectful of my fellow runner’s privacy).  Supposing that a broken rib or something more serious had resulted, it’s very unlikely that anyone who administered emergency care or CPR could be held liable.  Every indication seems to be that these runners acted in good faith, i.e. they acted on “a reasonable opinion that the immediacy of the situation is such that the rendering of care should not be postponed.”  Thus, the statute would protect the actions they took in an effort to safe their fellow runner’s life even if he had been injured in the process.

That covers Virginia law and the situation that I witnessed, but there’s quite a bit more to cover on this topic.  Although, as I noted above, every state has a Good Samaritan law of some sort, their popular names are about the only thing that these laws have in common. Be sure to check out the rest of the discussion in Part 2.

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