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Who Has a Duty to Administer Help on a Plane?

Woman sick on an airplane.
By Kellie Pantekoek on January 09, 2020 8:04 AM

For people who don't like to fly — which is many of us — learning that there is someone trained to save lives onboard a flight can be reassuring.

But if you are the one who is professionally trained as a doctor, nurse, EMT, or something similar, you may wonder if you have a legal responsibility to administer help in the case of an emergency. And if you do try to help, can your actions be held against you in case of an unfavorable outcome?

No Legal Duty, but Potentially an Ethical One

The first thing to know is that off-duty doctors and other medical professionals are not legally required to help if a medical emergency arises on an airplane; however, there may be an ethical duty to intervene, as described in a 2015 article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

The ethical duty stems from the fact that doctors and other medical professionals don't "lose" their training simply because they are off duty and out of uniform. At the same time, options are usually limited when an emergency is happening at 30,000 feet, and any given medical professional on board may be the only one who can help save a life.

With that said, medical professionals are smart to wonder about exposing themselves to legal liability if they try to intervene and are unsuccessful, due to their own mistakes or circumstances outside their control.

'Good Samaritan' Doctors Protected From Liability

Congress passed the Aviation Medical Assistance Act in 1998 in effort to encourage health care providers to step up when duty calls and help alleviate concerns that the professionals could be susceptible to civil lawsuits after lending a hand.

The act provides immunity from civil lawsuits for doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other health care providers who provide in-flight emergency medical assistance. It takes the same approach as state Good Samaritan laws, which also provide immunity from liability for people who assist others.

The act also put in place requirements for standardized, minimum medical equipment on all aircraft in the U.S.

Of course, there are exceptions to this immunity, including for individuals who are:

  • Acting outside the scope of their training
  • Acting while impaired by drugs or alcohol
  • Acting with gross negligence, which includes deliberate actions or extreme carelessness

So, a medical professional still has to use good judgment when deciding whether to step in and while administering help, both for the safety of the public and to protect their own legal interests.

Being on a flight with a medical emergency is somewhat rare — a 2013 study in the NEJM estimated that one occurs on every 604 flights.

But if you do happen to be kicking back, enjoying a ginger ale on ice, while flipping through the SkyMall shopping catalog when a call for a doctor is made over the intercom, you now understand your legal duties and protections a little better.