10th December 2017
THE DOCTOR AS RESCUER, GOOD SAMARITAN OR VOLUNTEER
By P S Ranjan Advocate & Solicitor
Legal Duty of Care
A doctor owes a legal duty of care even when he acts as a rescuer, Good Samaritan or volunteer. In the Australian case of Goode v Nash (1979) 21 SASR 419, a doctor who, without reward, took part in a Lions Club glaucoma screening project, negligently caused burns when he placed a hot tonometer on a patient's eye. The doctor was ordered to pay damages.
Ethical Duty in Emergencies
While in an emergency there is no legal duty on the part of a doctor to attend to a person in need of care, there may be an ethical duty to do so. The International Code of Medical Ethics states as follows on the subject: "A doctor must give emergency care as a humanitarian duty unless he is assured that others are willing and able to give such care."
The Standard of Care
The standard of care to be applied is that of the ordinary competent doctor, as was stated in the English case of Bolam v Friern Hospital Management Committee  1 All E.R. 1068. The Bolam test has been applied in a number of Malaysian cases, including Chin Keow v Government of Malaysia  2 MLJ 45 and Dr Chin Yoon Hiap v Ng Eu Khoon & Ors and other appeals  1 MLJ 57.
The standard of care to be applied to a rescuer, Good Samaritan or volunteer must be a reasonable one in the circumstances. For instance, the standard to be expected from a doctor- passenger when responding to an emergency on an aircraft during a flight would obviously be lower than that of a big hospital's accident and emergency department where the facilities would be better.
There does not appear to be any reported case of a doctor being successfully sued for negligence for a Good Samaritan act. However, the faint traces of a "charitable immunity" found in early British cases and in some American states have not found much favour in modern times.
Doctor as Victim
There have been reported cases of Good Samaritans, volunteers and rescuers who had suffered injury through the fault of others, as a result of which damages had been awarded. A good example is the British case of Baker v Hopkins  3 All E.R. 225. A doctor went down a well to rescue two men who had been overcome by carbon monoxide fumes produced in the well by the use of a petrol-driven motor pump, an act of negligence on the part of the building contractors who had undertaken the task of emptying the well of water. The doctor succumbed to the fumes and died. It was held that the contractors were liable for the death of the doctor.
In another British case, Ogwo v Taylor  3 All E.R. 961, a fireman, who was injured when attending to a fire negligently caused by the defendant's workmen, succeeded in his claim for damages against the defendant.
Doctors are frequently afraid of legal problems arising out of accidents occurring when they attend to people in emergencies and when undertaking voluntary or charitable work. The law expects doctors to provide reasonable care, according to the circumstances. Sometimes the doctor who acts as rescuer, helper or volunteer and who, in the process suffers injury from the wrongdoing of others, may properly claim damages from the wrongdoers.
• Case Note 2007 (29th Nov 2007)
• PITFALLS IN SPINAL SURGERY (13th Feb 2007)
• PITFALLS IN BRAIN SURGERY AND SPINAL SURGERY (7th Jan 2007)
• ANNUAL REPORT 2005 (12th Feb 2006)
• HEALTH TOURISM (9th Feb 2006)
• Doctors Mangled By "Justice" (15th Jan 2004)
• PATIENTS' VIEWS (21st Oct 2003)
• Patient Safety/Clinical Risk/Medical Error (8th Oct 2003)
• NOTICE TO MEMBERS (30th Sep 2003)
• CASE STUDIES (30th Sep 2003)
• Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) (30th Sep 2003)
• APPOINTMENT OF NEW CHAIRMAN (25th Sep 2003)
• Annual Report for MDM (27th Jan 2003)
• STORAGE, PRESCRIPTION AND DISPENSING OF DRUGS (5th Mar 2002)
• ADVICE TO MEMBERS (5th Mar 2002)
• THE DOCTOR AS RESCUER, GOOD SAMARITAN OR VOLUNTEER (20th Jan 2002)
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