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Transcare Maryland., Inc., et al. v. Bryson Murray

April 22, 2013

TRANSCARE MARYLAND., INC., ET AL.
v.
BRYSON MURRAY, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McDonald, J.

TransCare Maryland, Inc. et al. v. Bryson Murray, et al.

No. 24, September Term 2012

Torts - Immunity - Good Samaritan Act. Under the Maryland Good Samaritan Act, volunteer fire departments, ambulance, and rescue squads are immune from liability for ordinary negligence in certain emergency situations when their members have immunity under the statute. Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, §5-603. The statute does not apply to a commercial ambulance company, even if its employees would be immune in particular circumstances.

Torts - Immunity - Fire and Rescue Act. Under the Maryland Fire and Rescue Act, fire and rescue companies and their personnel enjoy broad immunity from liability for ordinary negligence arising from "acts and omissions performed in the course of their duties." Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, §5-604. This immunity does not ordinarily apply to a commercial ambulance company.

Bell, C.J. Harrell Greene Adkins Barbera McDonald Wilner (retired, specially assigned) JJ.

Opinion by McDonald, J.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a man on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Two passers-by of significant social and religious status see the injured man, but choose to cross to the other side of the road. A third traveler of less repute, a Samaritan, comes to the man's aid, takes him to an inn, tends to him through the night, and then pays the innkeeper the next morning to continue the man's care.

We do not know from the parable whether the fear of civil liability discouraged the first two passers-by from intervening. In modern-day Maryland, a State law known as the Good Samaritan Act seeks to remove that disincentive, particularly for individuals who have the knowledge and skills to provide useful medical assistance at an emergency, by granting those individuals immunity from liability should something go awry. In some instances that immunity extends to an entity when its personnel provide emergency aid.

Another source of immunity - sovereign immunity - derives from the ancient tenet that "the King can do no wrong."*fn1 Public agencies and employees, including first responders, have long enjoyed a broad qualified immunity from liability as an aspect of sovereign or governmental immunity. A State statute, popularly known as the Fire and Rescue Act, extends similarly broad immunity to fire companies, rescue companies, and their personnel for "any act or omission in the course of performing their duties."

These two statutes - the one potentially applicable to a broad class of actors but focused on emergency situations, the other applicable to a narrower class but broader in the scope of the immunity it confers - provide overlapping protection to some extent. This case concerns whether one, or both, of these statutes necessarily relieves a commercial ambulance company of liability for the allegedly negligent actions of one of its employees in providing assistance to a patient when an emergency arose while the employee was in training. We hold that they do not.

Background

The Transport of Bryson Murray

On November 15, 2007, Respondent Bryson Murray,*fn2 a minor who was suffering from congestion and was having trouble breathing, was taken to Easton Memorial Hospital ("Easton Memorial") in Talbot County.*fn3 At the hospital he was fitted with an endotracheal breathing tube. Because Easton Memorial was not equipped to handle intubated children, hospital officials sought to transfer him to the pediatric intensive care unit at the Medical Center of the University of Maryland Medical System ("UMMS") in Baltimore.

UMMS arranged for PHI Air Medical to carry out the transport by helicopter. Present on the helicopter was a flight paramedic team that included a UMMS pediatric intensive-care nurse, a PHI flight paramedic, and a PHI flight nurse. Also present was Chris Barbour,*fn4 a paramedic employed by Petitioner TransCare*fn5 who had been invited to ride along by the UMMS nurse (with PHI's permission) for orientation purposes. TransCare, a licensed commercial ground ambulance transport company, was under contract with UMMS to provide ground ambulance services for patients between the Medical Center and area hospitals.*fn6 Mr. Barbour was a licensed emergency medical technician - paramedic.

After the helicopter arrived at Easton Memorial, Mr. Barbour set up equipment and the team placed Bryson on the aircraft. Shortly after take-off, however, Bryson's heart rate and oxygen blood level began to drop, because, according to the allegations in the complaint, the endotracheal tube had become dislodged and was blocking his airway. Members of the flight team searched for a pediatric air mask to restore Bryson's breathing, but were unable to locate it. The helicopter then landed at Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville, where the flight paramedic retrieved the mask from its storage compartment and Bryson was reintubated. Bryson's cardiac activity returned to normal and the helicopter completed its trip to the Medical Center.

The Murrays' Negligence Action Complaint

Bryson, by his mother, Karen Murray, subsequently filed a complaint against TransCare alleging medical malpractice on the basis that its employee, Mr. Barbour, had failed to provide the requisite standard of care and that TransCare was vicariously responsible under the principle of respondeat superior.*fn7 According to the complaint, Bryson suffered hypoxic brain injury due to alleged acts and omissions of Mr. Barbour during the helicopter transport and, as a result, is blind, deaf, and mentally disabled. The complaint did not name Mr. Barbour individually as a defendant.*fn8

Summary Judgment Motion

TransCare moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune from liability under both the Good Samaritan Act and the Fire and Rescue Act. The Circuit Court for Talbot County*fn9 was initially persuaded that there were disputes of material fact as to TransCare's corporate relationship with the other medical providers involved and as to whether it had received a "fee or compensation" that would preclude application of the Good Samaritan Act. The Circuit Court also tentatively concluded that the Fire and Rescue Act did not apply to a commercial ambulance company such as TransCare. Accordingly, the Circuit Court initially denied TransCare's motion for summary judgment based on those immunity provisions.

TransCare thereafter filed a motion for reconsideration, submitting two affidavits that established the company's independent corporate status and described its billing practices. Following a hearing on that motion, the Circuit Court concluded that there were no remaining disputes of material fact and that TransCare was immune under both the Good Samaritan Act and the Fire and Rescue Act. It therefore granted summary judgment in favor of TransCare.

Appeal

The Murrays appealed and the Court of Special Appeals reversed, holding that neither statute applied to a private, for-profit ambulance company. 203 Md. App. 172, 37 A.3d 987 (2012). TransCare petitioned this Court for certiorari. We granted the petition to determine whether either the Good Samaritan Act or the Fire and Rescue Act relieves a commercial ambulance company of civil liability for the alleged negligence of an employee committed when an emergency arises during a transfer of a patient between medical facilities.*fn10

Standard of Review

Whether summary judgment was properly granted is a question of law; we review the Circuit Court's decision to determine whether it was legally correct. Walk v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 382 Md. 1, 14, 852 A.2d 98 (2004). Like the Circuit Court, we view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party to ascertain whether there is a dispute of material fact and, if not, whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Jurgensen v. New Phx. Atl. Condo. Council of Unit Owners, 380 Md. 106, 114, 843 A.2d 865 (2004).

Analysis

In order to assess TransCare's claims of immunity, we must construe two statutes - the Good Samaritan Act and the Fire and Rescue Act. This Court has frequently reiterated the principles that guide statutory interpretation, which we summarize as follows:

* give effect to legislative intent

* look first to the "ordinary, plain meaning" of the language

* do not add or delete language

* do not apply forced or subtle interpretations

* keep in mind the statutory context

* consider the purpose, aim, or policy of the Legislature

* avoid constructions inconsistent with ...


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