Good Samaritan Law Protects Those Seeking Emergency Care for Others; McGowen v. Montes

Indiana has enacted a Good Samaritan Law (GSL) that immunizes people who are responding to emergencies with emergency care. This case questions how broadly those immunities apply.

Early one foggy morning, McGowen was driving a semi-tractor owned by his employer, Vision, on a two-lane country road. McGowen was driving slowly because of the fog when he saw a heavily-damaged truck in a ditch on the side of the road. McGowen saw Patton wandering around the truck, and he stopped to see if he could help. McGowen did not see anyone behind him, stopped in the middle of the road, and did not put his vehicle into park. McGowen asked Patton if he was okay and offered to call 911.

Meanwhile, Higgins was traveling the opposite way and saw McGowen’s semi was stopped. Higgins pulled past the semi, stopped, and put on her hazard lights. Montes was driving in the same direction as McGowen. Higgins saw Montes and flashed her lights at him, but Montes did not slow down. Montes struck the back of McGowen’s semi without braking immediately after Patton asked McGowen to call 911. Another vehicle behind Montes saw the semi prior to the collision and stopped.

McGowen sued Montes for negligence, and Montes countered against McGowen and Vision. McGowen and Vision moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were immune under the GSL. The trial court granted the motion of McGowen and Vision, and Montes appealed.

On appeal, the Court acknowledged that it had “rarely” addressed the GSL, and that it had not dealt with whether it applied to people like McGowen. The statute protects those who “gratuitously render emergency care,” but does not define “emergency care.” Montes argued that the GSL did not apply because McGowen was not “actively participating in rendering care or assistance.” McGowen argued that he was immune because he was trying to procure emergency assistance for Patton when Montes struck his semi.

In order to figure out what the Legislature meant by “emergency care,” the Court looked to the language of the statute, which expressly covered those providing medical treatment and those who “arrange for further medical treatment or care.” The Court
found that this covered McGowen, and that if the Legislature wanted to prevent this, then it had the ability to say so in the statute. Interestingly, while the Court mentioned how these kinds of immunity statutes are in derogation of the common law, it did not explain how this principle affected its analysis.

After reaching this conclusion, the Court addressed Montes’s argument that the GSL did not apply because McGowen’s conduct was grossly negligence or willful and wanton.

But the Court found that there was not a genuine issue of fact on this question. The fact that McGowen stopped in the road was no problem because of “the short duration of the stop prior to the collision and McGowen’s choice to not put the semi in park, allowing him to move on quickly if needed.” And McGowen could not be faulted for not putting on his hazard lights, because his brake lights overrode his hazards. Finally, whether McGowen was negligent per se for violating traffic laws by stopping in the road did not affect whether he was grossly negligent because “a presumption of negligence is dissimilar to a presumption of gross negligence.”

Given these conclusions, McGowen was immune under the GSL. However, Montes has sought transfer, and the petition has been fully briefed for a couple of months. Given the rarity in which courts have dealt with this statute, the Indiana Supreme Court may wish to address this statute itself.

Lessons:
1. The Indiana Good Samaritan Law immunizes those who gratuitously render emergency care.
2. Someone who response to an emergency and offers to call 911 is immune under the Good Samaritan Law.
3. Proof of a statutory safety violation does not raise a presumption of gross negligence.

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