Federal and state authorities extend Good Samaritan laws.


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The COVID-19 pandemic challenged health care providers with an unknown pathogen, a crush of severely ill patients, and shortages of medical supplies and protective gear for staff. Questions arose about legal liability risks for physicians and other health care providers thrown into this uncertain clinical environment. How could they be shielded from liability while preserving patients' rights to sue for damages?

Figure. Arkansas gov... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson signs one of three executive orders granting COVID-19 liability immunity to businesses and health care workers. Photo by Randall Lee / Office of Governor Asa Hutchinson.

The Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, invoked on March 17, provides broad immunity to health care professionals. Its protections were supplemented by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Trump on March 27.


Existing state law, as well as new executive orders in several states, also protect physicians and other health care workers from civil liability in COVID-19 cases. The existing statutes, called Good Samaritan laws, have shielded medical professionals from lawsuits when they provided care at the scene of a car accident or other emergencies. New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently issued an executive order extending the provisions of the state's Good Samaritan law to actions by medical professionals in response to COVID-19.


Such protections are routinely voided in cases where medical professionals have demonstrated gross negligence, criminal conduct, or were intoxicated while providing care. Edie Brous, a nurse attorney, underscored the narrow applicability of the liability protections, noting that they do not affect licensure discipline or criminal prosecution and "are not intended to limit patient rights." They are also temporary and limited to emergencies or disasters, in this case the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to protecting medical professionals from lawsuits, the executive orders sometimes loosen regulatory restrictions to augment the health care workforce, Brous told AJN. "They might permit new grads to work before they obtain a license, temporarily permit out-of-state providers to practice without a license in that particular state, or suspend regulatory deadlines for renewals," she said.-Frank Brodhead