Law & Medicine

Midair medical emergencies



Question: One hour into an Air France international flight out of New York, Dr. Internist responded to a call for emergency medical assistance. A U.S. passenger had briefly passed out but then appeared to recover. Dr. Internist made a tentative diagnosis of a transient ischemic attack, but did not think an immediate divert was necessary. Based on the doctor’s assessment, the pilot continued on the previously scheduled flight path, landing several hours later in Paris. Meanwhile, the passenger’s condition worsened, and he expired shortly after arrival.

Which of the following statements is correct?

A. Under the common law, there is no legal duty to aid a stranger in distress; but under French law, a doctor is legally obligated to provide emergency assistance.

B. The U.S. federal Aviation Medical Assistance Act may immunize the doctor against liability for negligence during a midair medical emergency.

C. A tort action may still lie against the airline, notwithstanding the doctor’s advice not to divert.

D. Expect jurisdictional conflicts in the event there is a lawsuit.

E. All are correct.

Answer: E. Under the common law, there is no legal duty for anyone, even a doctor, to come to the aid of a stranger. However, doctors are generally held to have an ethical duty to offer emergency care. The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics states: “Physicians are free to choose whom they will serve. The physician should, however, respond to the best of his or her ability in cases of emergency where first aid treatment is essential.”1

In contrast, Australia and most civil law jurisdictions, e.g., many European countries, impose a legal obligation to render assistance. Under French law, for example, failure to render assistance to a person in urgent need of help can be met with fines of up to 75,000 euros and 5 years imprisonment.

Medical “emergencies” occur in roughly 1 of every 600 flights, which may be an underestimate because of underreporting. The most common medical reasons for aircraft diversion are cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic emergencies. According to a recent review in the New England Journal of Medicine, the decision to divert lies solely with the captain of the aircraft, who must also consider factors such as fuel, costs, the ability to land, and the medical resources available at that airport.2 The review also summarizes medical steps to be taken during midair medical emergencies.

Two related laws other than international aviation treaties govern medical liability during commercial flights: the generic “Good Samaritan” statute, which all 50 U.S. states have enacted, and the more specific federal Aviation Medical Assistance Act.

In 1959, California enacted the first Good Samaritan statute, whose intent is to encourage the helping of people in distress. In general, the law protects against liability arising out of nonreimbursed negligent rescue, but it does not affirmatively require doctors to come to the aid of strangers. Vermont, however, is an exception, and imposes a legal duty to assist a victim in need.

Typically, there is legal immunity against ordinary negligence but not gross misconduct, although California appears to excuse even gross negligence so long as the act was done in good faith. In a litigated case, a California court eloquently declared: “The goodness of the Samaritan is a description of the quality of his or her intention, not the quality of the aid delivered.”3

There is no universal definition of gross negligence, but the term frequently is equated with willful, wanton, or reckless conduct. One can think of gross negligence as aggravated negligence, involving more than mere mistake, inadvertence, or inattention, and representing highly unreasonable conduct or an extreme departure from ordinary care where a high degree of danger is apparent.4 An example may be an obviously inebriated physician attempting to provide treatment and causing harm to the victim.

However, the Good Samaritan statute, being state based, may not be applicable to scenarios with cross-border jurisdictional issues. The specific law that incorporates Good Samaritan assistance during commercial flights is the federal Aviation Medical Assistance Act (AMAA), which Congress enacted in 1998. In addition to Federal Aviation Administration mandates such as requisite medical supplies on board and training of flight crew, this federal law shields providers who respond to in-flight medical emergencies.

The AMAA covers claims arising from domestic flights and those arising from international flights involving U.S. carriers or residents, but it does not protect a provider who exhibits flagrant disregard for the patient’s health and safety. Liability is generally determined under the law of the country in which the aircraft is registered, but the citizenship status of the parties and where the incident occurs are also relevant.5


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