A bill that extends civil immunity to non-volunteer rescue squads providing basic and intermediary emergency medical services in good faith is making headway in the New Jersey legislature. State lawmakers introduced the bill in response to a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling last year that held statutory immunity from civil liability is limited to individual first responders and does not extend to the non-volunteer rescue squads that employ them. Murray v. Plainfield Rescue Squad, A-128-10 (N.J. July 17, 2012).

On February 21, the New Jersey Senate Law & Public Safety Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill No. 2165, which would amend N.J. Stat. Ann. 26:2K-29 to clarify that “No EMT-intermediate, . . . first aid, ambulance or rescue squads, or officers and members of a first aid, ambulance or rescue squad shall be liable for any civil damages as the result of an act or the omission of an act committed while in training for or in the rendering of intermediate life support services in good faith.” The New Jersey Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee reported favorably on a companion measure (Assembly Bill No. 3282) in January.

Statutory immunity from civil lawsuits currently exists in New Jersey for (1) individual members of first aid, rescue, or emergency squads, regardless of whether they receive reimbursement; (2) volunteer first aid, rescue, and emergency squads, as entities; and (3) first aid, rescue, or emergency squads, as entities, regardless of whether they receive reimbursement, for acts or omissions committed while training for or rendering advanced life support services. But as interpreted by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Murray, a plain reading of the relevant statutory language in N.J. Stat. Ann. 26:2K-29 led to one conclusion—a rescue squad as an entity could be sued for the negligent provision of intermediary emergency medical services.

The case was initiated by the parents of a gunshot victim who sued Plainfield Rescue Squad after their son’s death, arguing first responders to their 9-1-1 call negligently delayed transporting him to a nearby hospital, thereby causing their son’s death. According to the facts described in the opinion, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) performed more than 30 minutes of CPR on the victim before transporting him to a hospital that was two miles away, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. Plaintiffs’ expert opined that bringing the victim to the hospital immediately was his only chance for survival. The trial court and the appeals court both found N.J. Stat. Ann. 26:2K-29 conferred statutory immunity on the EMTs and the rescue squad as an entity.

Reversing, the New Jersey Supreme Court said the lower courts, and the parties, missed one critical issue in their analysis—the distinction between individual and entity immunity under N.J. Stat. Ann. 26:2K-29. According to the high court, the statute itself makes this distinction by, for example, immunizing both hospitals—as entities—and their individual employees. The high court also pointed to the separate immunity provision for volunteer first aid, rescue, and emergency squads, which specifically confers immunity both to the entity and to its members and officers. Similar language also appears in the statute shielding both rescue squads and individual first responders from liability when providing advanced (as opposed to intermediate) life support. In the high court’s view, this context clearly indicated the legislature understood the distinction between individual and entity immunity and affirmatively choose not to shield the latter in N.J. Stat. Ann. 26:2K-29.

The high court also rejected the rescue squad’s argument that it could not be held liable where the squad members themselves had no liability. Even under the common law, a principal may be liable for the acts of an agent who has personal immunity, the high court observed. The high court also was unwilling, as a matter of public policy, to “engraft onto the statute an immunity provision that the Legislature pointedly omitted.” In essence, the high court said its hands were tied; even if the statutory language was an oversight, it was up to the legislature to fix it. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court opinion in Murray v. Plainfield Rescue Squad is available at http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/courts/supreme/a-128-10.opn.html.

The New Jersey Senate and Assembly bills are available at http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/.