NJ Law Grants Medical Malpractice Immunity to COVID-19 Physicians
On April 13, 2020, Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey signed a bill granting immunity to healthcare providers and hospitals treating patients for COVID-19. The law provides criminal and civil immunity to physicians, nurses, and others who are treating patients for COVID-19 in New Jersey during a public health emergency. The bill is retroactive to March 9, 2020.
The bill shields healthcare workers from personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits arising from their treatment of coronavirus patients during the outbreak.
The bill was fast-tracked through the New Jersey legislature
The bill, S2333/A3910, was introduced, approved by the Senate and Assembly, and then signed by the governor at breakneck speed. The bill was first introduced on April 9, 2020. The bill received a 73-1-1 vote in the Assembly and a 30-2 vote in the Senate.
Governor Murphy moved quickly to sign the bill into law on April 13th, just days after it was first proposed.
Why provide coronavirus medical malpractice immunity to healthcare workers?
The bill provides immunity from certain criminal or civil liability for healthcare workers treating COVID-19 during a public health emergency. The goal of the bill is to provide immunity for acts taken in good faith by healthcare professionals to treat COVID-19 patients. The idea is that physicians and other medical personnel should not be afraid of being sued when they are doing the best they can to treat patients with limited resources such as beds, ventilators, and other equipment.
The legislature also wanted to protect other medical professionals who may step up to relieve the front line medical staff treating coronavirus patients. Retired physicians, medical students, and others are being called upon to assist in managing the pandemic. The law seeks to protect these people by immunizing them from claims of injury or death arising from the treatment they provide.
Given the inexperience that certain physicians or other healthcare providers may have in treating infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses, these medical professionals may be otherwise hesitant to assist in caring for coronavirus patients. NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, was quoted by the New Jersey Law Journal as saying, "We are giving [protection] to people who normally would not be there."
What type of acts are immune from malpractice liability?
The law provides that a health care professional shall not be liable for civil damages for injury or death that are alleged to have been sustained as a result of an act or omission by a healthcare professional during treatment provided in support of New Jersey's coronavirus disease outbreak response.
A healthcare professional includes any:
- physician assistant
- registered nurse
- advanced practice nurse
- licensed practical nurse
- emergency medical technician
- mobile intensive care paramedic
Individual healthcare providers are not the only ones provided immunity. Hospitals and health care facilities where patients are being treated are also being given immunity from personal injury claims.
This new law provides immunity from lawsuits for any act or omission by a healthcare professional that is undertaken in good faith to support efforts to treat COVID-19 patients. This includes acts or omissions by medical personnel who are also attempting to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the public health emergency that was declared by Governor Murphy in Executive Order 103 of 2020.
In other words, if a healthcare professional is attempting to treat a coronavirus patient in good faith and makes a mistake or a bad judgment call that results in injury or death, the medical professional will not be held civilly responsible. So long as that action was made in good faith the law is written to shield the medical professional from liability.
However, there are limits to this immunity.
The immunity from suit is not absolute
While the law provides fairly broad immunity to healthcare professionals in NJ during the COVID-19 crisis, is it not absolute. The law specifically states that the immunity from civil liability does not apply to acts or omissions that constitute a crime, actual fraud, actual malice, gross negligence, recklessness, or willful misconduct.
It should be noted that these types of acts or omissions are generally beyond negligence or a violation of a standard of care. Fraud or actual malice may require an intent to harm. Gross negligence and willful misconduct under New Jersey law often require a showing of actual knowledge that the actor knew that he or she was doing something forbidden or against the rules.
The Superior Court has stated that, ""Good faith" may exist in the presence of negligence." Dunlea v. Twp. of Belleville, 349 N.J. Super. 506, 510, 793 A.2d 888, 890 (Super. Ct. App. Div. 2002). So in cases where immunity is being evaluated, a person who is negligent and fails to act reasonably is still immune so long as the mistake or error was made in good faith.
A potential situation where a healthcare provider could still be liable is when a doctor is specifically told not to provide a certain type of treatment but willfully disregards that directive and administers the treatment anyway. In such a situation, the doctor was aware of a rule, knowingly violated the rule, and harm occurred. This type of action is different from negligence, when a physician fails to provide the extent of care that a reasonably skilled physician would provide to a patient under the same circumstances.
Also, the civil immunity granted by this law does not apply to healthcare providers treating patients for anything other than COVID-19. For example, an orthopedic physician treating a broken bone or a OB/GYN doctor delivering a baby are not immune from suit if they violate the standard of care while treating patients for those issues.
Healthcare providers are only immune from liability under this law if they are treating patients or attempting to stop the spread of COVID-19.
About Personal Injury Lawyer John Mattiacci
Personal injury attorney John Mattiacci is the founder of Mattiacci Law. Mattiacci Law is a personal injury law firm handling catastrophic accident cases on behalf of injured victims across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The firm has offices in Moorestown, NJ and in Philadelphia, PA.
While our firm has closed our physical offices in accordance with the directives of both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, our attorneys and staff continue to work remotely on behalf of our clients. Someone is always available to answer the phone 24/7.
If you or a family member has any questions regarding this law or any other personal injury matter, contact our firm today at 856-219-2481. Any initial consultation is completely free.
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