Understand how Montana’s Good Samaritan laws can shield you from liability during an emergency
The term “Good Samaritan” originated from a religious parable and has come to signify a person who selflessly helps others in their time of need. Put more precisely, “Good Samaritan” refers to someone who voluntarily comes to the aid or assistance of another person in a crisis or emergency, and that person assists without expecting any reward or compensation.
The term is often used when discussing legal protection for individuals who provide assistance in good faith to others during emergencies. The legal language describes individuals helping others who receive protection under Good Samaritan laws.
What are Good Samaritan laws?
Good Samaritan laws vary by jurisdiction but generally serve as legal provisions to protect individuals who voluntarily assist those in distress or with injuries in an accident or emergency situation. These laws have common principles containing the following key aspects:
- Protection from liability. Good Samaritan laws typically provide individuals with immunity from civil or criminal liability when assisting someone in need in good faith. If the person helping unintentionally causes harm to the distressed individual while providing aid, they are protected from being sued or prosecuted by the injured party in most cases.
In some situations, consent can become an issue if the victim needing aid is unconscious, delusional, a young child or otherwise unable to make decisions on their own. Although courts are often forgiving, depending on the circumstances, someone acting as a Good Samaritan could be held liable for assault or battery.
- No duty to act. In many jurisdictions, Good Samaritan laws specify that the individuals providing help are not legally obligated to do so. The laws emphasize and encourage voluntary assistance but do not impose any legal duty to help or intervene.
- Conditions for immunity. Legal protections for Good Samaritans typically have some conditional language. For example, the help must be provided in good faith, voluntarily and without expectation of compensation or reward. The laws may also state that the helping individual must not be reckless or grossly negligent in their actions. In some jurisdictions, the person must be in imminent peril for the Good Samaritan’s actions to receive protection.
- Medical assistance. Many Good Samaritan laws provide protections specifically addressing first aid and emergency medical assistance. They protect individuals who provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), administer medication, use an AED (automated external defibrillator), or give other types of emergency medical aid.
- Scope of protection. The scope of protection provided by Good Samaritan laws can vary by jurisdiction. Differences in coverage extend to individuals at an accident scene and health care personnel providing emergency care outside their regular work, for example.
Montana Good Samaritan attempts to help a pilot who crashed in the Flathead River
In October 2022, a plane crash into the Flathead River in western Montana resulted in the death of one person. The incident occurred near Plains early on a Sunday morning, according to the Sanders County Sheriff’s Office. The pilot of the Scoda Aeronautica aircraft hit some power lines, leading to the crash.
A good Samaritan attempted to help the pilot by swimming out to the plane before rescue crews arrived. Despite these efforts, the victim, who was flown to Kalispell for treatment, later died from the injuries.
What types of emergencies do these laws apply to?
In general, Good Samaritan laws apply to many situations where individuals help another person in need in emergency and accident scenarios. The following describes some typical scenarios where Good Samaritan laws apply:
- Accidents and injuries. If someone comes across another person injured in a slip-and-fall accident, car crash or other traumatic accident, the law protects those providing aid.
- Medical emergencies. Situations where someone may provide medical help to a person experiencing a heart attack, choking incident, sudden illness or other health crisis.
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Situations where someone provides medical aid using CPR or an automated external defibrillator (AED) to help an individual who is having a cardiac arrest.
- Drug overdose. Good Samaritan laws in some jurisdictions include protection for individuals seeking help for someone else experiencing a drug overdose. This protection aims to prompt immediate life-saving action without fear of legal repercussions.
- Search and rescue. In some scenarios, individuals who perform search and rescue efforts receive protection, especially if they’re performing the work voluntarily in good faith.
Does Montana have a Good Samaritan law?
Yes, Montana has Good Samaritan laws that offer legal protection to Good Samaritans who assist others in emergency and crisis situations.
Who qualifies as a Good Samaritan in Montana?
In Montana, any person licensed in the state as a surgeon or physician, a volunteer firefighter for a nonprofit volunteer fire company, or anyone else who provides emergency assistance or care without compensation in good faith qualifies.
What protections does the Good Samaritan law offer in Montana?
Montana Good Samaritan laws protect individuals from liability for providing medical assistance at the scene of an emergency. The only scenario in which the law does not protect an individual is if they engage in gross negligence or reckless behavior.
Montana has recently passed additional legislation to enhance the protections under its Good Samaritan law. Section 50-32-609 of the state’s Good Samaritan law adds protection for people who provide medical assistance during drug overdoses.
Someone acting in good faith to assist an overdosing individual is protected from charges or arrest, and the court cannot use any evidence obtained by law enforcement against them. The changes also protect pregnant women looking to seek help for substance abuse from legal consequences.
Providing first aid during an overdose does not create new legal issues or affect existing cases, and the law intends to encourage providing immediate help without risking legal consequences.
Additionally, Montana recently approved Senate Bill 423, the Good Samaritan Firearm Liability Protection Law. This new law protects a person who temporarily takes possession of another individual’s firearms. The immunity protects the person assisting if they return the firearms too soon after an oral or written agreement ends.
The law is intended to aid suicide prevention, allowing individuals to hold onto someone else’s firearms while they work through a tough time. In 2021, firearms were involved in 63% of the state’s suicides.
How might Montana’s Good Samaritan law impact liability in personal injury cases?
Like other jurisdictions, Montana’s Good Samaritan laws will likely continue to evolve based on new case developments that could impact liability.
For example, a case in California involved a female bystander who was not an emergency worker rescuing a car crash victim. She pulled the victim from the vehicle, fearing the car would catch fire. The victim became paralyzed and sued the bystander, saying that her paralysis resulted from the woman pulling her from the car, not from the accident itself.
Good Samaritan laws in the state originally protected the helpful bystander, but a judge overturned the ruling on the basis that moving a car crash victim does not qualify as medical care. In 2008, the California Supreme Court upheld this decision, which reduced the legal protections for Good Samaritans.
Legislation subsequently amended the law to include protection for medical and non-medical care. However, the amendment also included the caveat that the law would not protect cases of willful misconduct or gross negligence. The Good Samaritan laws protect emergency workers, while protections are slightly less comprehensive for laypersons who intervene to help.