Argument Report: Illinois Supreme Court Debates the Scope of the Good Samaritan Act

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Our reports on the oral arguments of the recent term of the Illinois Supreme Court continue with Home Star Bank & Financial Services v. Emergency Care & Health Organization, Ltd. Home Star poses the question of whether physicians who are paid by their physician groups to work in a hospital emergency room can qualify for tort immunity under the Good Samaritan Act. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court decisions in Home Star is here. Check out the video of the Home Star argument here.

The defendant physician was employed in the emergency room of a hospital.   He responded to a "Code Blue" for a patient being cared for on another floor, complications ensued and the patient suffered permanent brain injury. The guardians of the patient filed suit against the physician and his group, alleging negligence. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the physician and his employer were immune from liability under the Good Samaritan Act, which provides that any physician "who, in good faith, provides emergency care without fee to a person, shall not, as a result of his or her acts or omissions" be liable for negligence "except willful or wanton misconduct." The plaintiffs pointed out that the defendant was compensated on an hourly basis for his services, but the Circuit Court granted summary judgment, noting that neither the patient nor his insurer had ever been billed. The Appellate Court reversed, holding that a physician was outside the scope of the Act if he or she was paid by anyone for the services provided.

Counsel for the physician began by arguing that reversal was justified based upon the plain language of the Act, and on Estate of Heanue - which the Appellate Court had declined to follow - and its progeny. Counsel argued that the statute provided an express exemption for "emergency care," and it was undisputed that the defendant was engaged in providing emergency care. Justice Theis pointed out that Section 2 of the Act suggests that the legislative purpose was to protect volunteers. Counsel responded that that language was in what several holdings described as the preamble. Justice Theis asked what Section 2 was labeled in the statute itself, and counsel agreed that it was described as the legislative purpose. Chief Justice Garman asked whether the defendant was a volunteer when he rendered the services at issue. Counsel responded no; he was an emergency room doctor being compensated by his physician group. Nevertheless, counsel argued that "volunteer" was not the important concept. The question was whether or not the defendant had provided services to the plaintiff without a fee. Estate of Heanue was on all fours, counsel argued - the patient had not paid any fee, and that was that. Justice Thomas pointed out that defendant believed the issue was whether the patient had been billed, not whether the physician was compensated. Why was this the better interpretation? Counsel argued that it was instructive to look at other parts of the statute, which deliberately chose between the words "without fee" and "without compensation" for different situations. The correct interpretation of the statute depended on the words used and the context, counsel argued. Justice Thomas asked whether the defendant was free to ignore Code Blues from outside the emergency room. Counsel answered that if the defendant was busy in the emergency room, he had no contractual duty to respond. Counsel argued that the statute had once said that the existence of a preexisting duty between the doctor and patient was critical, but the legislature had deliberately removed that language. Justice Theis asked whether counsel was arguing that a preexisting relationship between the doctor and patient was irrelevant to the application of the Act. Counsel answered that a preexisting duty was relevant to the issue of whether the defendant had sent the patient a bill, and why he had not (if no bill was sent). Here, no bill was sent because the defendant's physician group never billed for responding to Code Blues outside of the emergency room. Justice Burke asked whether that was because defendant would be compensated anyway, but counsel answered that it made no difference for defendant's compensation whether he attended one Code or many, or attended one patient or many in the ER. Chief Justice Garman asked whether the matter finally came down to good faith. Counsel agreed that it did; the Act applies if the defendant is a physician, the care was on an emergency basis, and the physician had a good faith basis for not billing the patient. The Chief Justice asked whether, if exactly the same events had happened in the ER, the outcome would be the same. Counsel answered that it came down to whether the patient was billed. Justice Thomas pointed out that some have argued that defendant's construction of the statute meant that the poor often would have no right of action, while the wealthy would have a claim, since hospitals would often not send a bill because they had no hope of payment. Counsel argued that this was a theoretical argument which had not been an issue in the eight years since Heanue.

Counsel for the plaintiff argued that the legislature had never intended to immunize doctors working inside a hospital, and certainly not ones who were not volunteers. Justice Karmeier asked whether the doctor was "paid for services" within the meaning of the statute merely because he had a contract. Counsel agreed. Justice Karmeier asked counsel whether the defendant could disregard a Code Blue. Counsel responded that defendant had admitted that where he had no higher priority in the ER, responding to a Code was part of his job. Justice Karmeier asked whether the result would be different if the defendant's contract expressly carved out responding to codes. Counsel responded that if it had not been part of defendant's job to respond to the Code Blue, that would probably change things. Justice Karmeier posited a doctor paid to travel among hospitals treating patients who encounters and treats a patient on the street while between locations. Counsel answered that he didn't know what the proper result was, but it was a different factual situation. Justice Karmeier asked whether plaintiff maintained that the defendant could not be a Good Samaritan because he was paid, or whether the scope of his duties was what mattered. Counsel answered that both were true. Counsel closed by describing a situation where a defendant had decided not to bill a patient because of a bad result, and under defendant's formulation of the statute, defendant would be immunized - this was the most absurd result imaginable, counsel argued.

In rebuttal, counsel for the defendant argued that plaintiff's position meant that the Legislature didn't know the difference between "without fee" and "without compensation." The legislature didn't use the different terms randomly, counsel argued; "without fee" was used in emergency care given without prior notice of the need, where "without compensation" described situations of broader immunity (like free clinics). Justice Thomas suggested that certain sections of the Act appeared to use "without fee" and "without compensation" interchangeably. Counsel argued that the defendant would be compensated for his time regardless of whether he attended the Code Blue or not. Justice Thomas suggested a hypothetical - an emergency occurred in the hallway outside of an ER, and the physician happened to roll the patient into the ER to use some sort of apparatus. Would the Act apply? Counsel answered that if care took place in the ER, the defendant's physician group would bill the patient, and the Act wouldn't apply. Counsel concluded by arguing that if the Act was intended only to apply to "volunteers," it would be far shorter. The legislature had chosen its terms carefully throughout. The Court may disagree with the public policy choices the legislature had made, counsel argued, but those choices were for the legislature to make.

We expect Home Star Bank to be decided in the next four to six months.