A resident services director at a California independent living center made headlines recently when she made a 911 call then refused to give CPR to a dying 87-year- old woman while the 911 dispatcher pleaded for her to help so the woman would not die. Their seven-minute discussion was recorded and has now been played on news broadcasts all over the world. Unfortunately, the woman died and the overall consensus seems to be that of outrage that the services director just sat there calmly and did nothing.

From a legal standpoint, it appears that the services director did nothing wrong since she was merely following her company’s policy on what to do in this situation. The policy required her to call 911 and then sit and wait with the person until emergency care arrived. Remember, this is an “independent living center”, not a medical facility like a hospital or nursing home. Independent living facilities do not provide medical services because they are not licensed to do so. By law, they are not permitted to provide any “medical care” or treatment.

From a moral or “human” standpoint, however, most people would agree that the services director failed miserably. After all, she was the one that made the 911 call. Didn’t she have a moral obligation to at least try to help another human being? Although there may be no right or wrong answers here, if the director had decided to try CPR, there probably would not have been any legal consequences because most states have “Good Samaritan” laws that protect regular people (as opposed to medical professionals) who try to help others in an emergency.

Contrast the above situation to a patient in a hospital or nursing home. Does the doctor or nurse have to at least try to provide whatever care is necessary to give the patient a chance for a good outcome? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”. We just finished a trial where an 80-year-old man had surgery to remove his gallbladder. The surgeon became confused when he looked inside the man’s abdomen and saw his anatomy stuck together and rock hard from scar tissue and swelling. Instead of taking steps to try to clear up the confusion, however, the surgeon just kept on cutting and eventually ended up cutting the wrong duct. As a result, two months after the surgery the man died. The surgeon’s expert witnesses testified that the surgeon did nothing wrong; this was a “recognized risk” of the surgery. Besides, there was no way to know whether, even if the surgeon had tried these other steps to clear up his confusion, there would have been a better outcome, and it probably would have been worse.

Although the surgeon’s experts may have been correct from a medical standpoint, the law in a medical negligence case does not require the patient to prove that there would have been a better outcome; all you have to prove is that the medical provider (in this case the surgeon) was negligent for failing to even try. Based upon this law, at the end of the trial the jury returned a substantial verdict for our client’s family.