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Court of Appeals: No immunity for private ambulance firm

A mother can pursue her $30 million claim that a private ambulance company’s negligence caused her son to suffer permanent brain damage, blindness and deafness on a helicopter flight between hospitals, Maryland’s top court ruled Monday.

The unanimous Court of Appeals said a Talbot County judge had wrongly dismissed Karen Murray’s lawsuit against TransCare Maryland Inc. after erroneously concluding that two state laws immunized the company from civil liability.

In its 7-0 decision, the high court said the Maryland Good Samaritan Act provides immunity only to volunteer ambulance services, while the Fire and Rescue Act covers only entities that respond to fires or perform rescues, not those involved in the commercial transportation of patients.

The Court of Appeals’ decision lets Murray pursue her claim that a TransCare paramedic failed to find an oxygen mask on the helicopter when her then-15-month-old son Bryson’s airway became blocked by a breathing tube. A mask was located only after the helicopter had made an emergency landing, by which time the lack of oxygen had caused brain damage, Murray alleges.

“It’s clear from this opinion that a jury will ultimately decide whether TransCare is vicariously liable for its employee’s conduct,” Stephen L. Snyder, Murray’s attorney, said of the decision. “It’s a simple case: Was this guy negligent at the time he rendered care to this child? If he wasn’t, they win; if he was, then they are responsible.”

Snyder heads The Snyder Litigation Team in Pikesville.

TransCare’s attorney, Robert W. Goodson, did not return telephone messages seeking comment. He is with Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP in Washington, D.C.

Bryson was gasping for breath when Murray took him to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital at Easton, arriving at 6:15 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2007. Medical personnel placed a breathing tube in the boy before having him airlifted at 1:25 the next morning to the University of Maryland Medical System’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

When on-board personnel could not locate an oxygen mask, the pilot landed the helicopter at Bay Bridge Airport. The pilot retrieved the mask and resumed the transport, according to the lawsuit.

Murray filed suit on Feb. 6, 2009, in Baltimore City Circuit Court. TransCare had the case moved to Talbot County Circuit Court about four months later, arguing the alleged negligence occurred in that county and key witnesses live there.

Talbot County Circuit Court Judge Sidney S. Campen Jr. accepted TransCare’s arguments for immunity in granting summary judgment for the company on Sept. 23, 2010. But the Court of Special Appeals vacated the summary judgment in February 2012, prompting the company to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

TransCare, which denies the negligence claim, argued unsuccessfully that the immunity provision of the Good Samaritan Act, Section 5-603 of the Court and Judicial Proceedings Article, applied to the company.

The Court of Appeals also rejected TransCare’s argument that the Fire and Rescue Act, CJP Section 5-604, applies to commercial ambulance companies.

“Under this view, TransCare and its employees would apparently enjoy this broad immunity from liability for ordinary negligence in their normal commercial activities, with a limited exception related to motor vehicles,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the high court. “We are loath to infer, in the absence of a clearer statement of legislative intent, that the General Assembly meant to bestow such a benefit on a commercial enterprise generally.”

The court also cited a Maryland law and regulation that require commercial ambulance companies to maintain at least $1 million in liability insurance coverage for any injuries, death or property damage they are found to cause.

“It is not clear why a commercial ambulance company would be required to maintain such coverage if it automatically enjoyed general immunity ‘from civil liability for any act or omission in the course of performing [its] duties,’’’ McDonald wrote, quoting from the Fire and Rescue Act.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

TransCare Maryland Inc. v. Murray, CA No. 24 Sept. Term 2012. Reported. Opinion by McDonald, J. Argued Nov. 29, 2012. Filed April 22, 2013.

Issue:

Did the trial judge err in granting summary judgment in favor of a commercial ambulance company under the state Good Samaritan Act (CJP Section 5-603) and the Fire and Rescue acts (CJP Section 5-604)?

Holding:

Yes; decision of the Court of Special Appeals affirmed; case remanded to Talbot Circuit Court. Neither law applies to commercial ambulance companies. In the absence of a clear statement of legislative intent, the court was loath to infer that the General Assembly meant to bestow such a benefit on a commercial enterprise generally.

Counsel:

Robert W. Goodson for petitioner; Jesse E. Cox and Jason Timoll for respondent.

RecordFax #13-0422-20 (36 pages).