Can I Be Sued if I Administer Epinephrine to Someone Who is Having an Allergic Reaction?

epinepherine

When anaphylaxis strikes, it is critical to take immediate action.

Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.  Individuals who have severe allergies can go into anaphylaxis within seconds or minutes of being exposed to an allergen.[1]

Many people at risk of anaphylaxis carry an autoinjector, a device with a concealed needle that injects a single dose of medication when pressed against the thigh.Using an autoinjector immediately can keep anaphylaxis from worsening and could save someone’s life.

When someone goes into anaphylaxis, it is terrifying.  Not only is it traumatic for the individual experiencing a life-threatening emergency, but it can also be distressing for the individuals around them, particularly if it is the first time that the individual has seen anaphylaxis occur.

Bystanders who want to help might be afraid or reluctant to administer epinephrine to someone having an allergic emergency, for fear that they could be sued for injecting a stranger with a needle.  Fortunately, Virginia has enacted Virginia Code § 8.01-225, also known as the “Good Samaritan Law,” which provides legal protection for individuals who help others in an emergency situation.  The purpose of the statute is to encourage individuals to get involved and to provide emergency aid, if possible.

Can I be sued for administering epinephrine to someone who is having an allergic reaction?

In most cases, no.

Under Virginia’s Good Samaritan Law, individuals who render emergency care or assistance at the scene of an accident or in a life-threatening emergency are not liable for civil damages arising from the emergency care or assistance.  In order to be protected legally, the statute says that the individual offering the assistance must do so in good faith and without compensation.

In addition to providing general legal protection, the Good Samaritan Law specifically protects anyone who administers epinephrine in an emergency to an individual if they have reason to believe that the individual is suffering or is about to suffer a life-threatening allergic reaction.[2]

An earlier version of the statute only protected “Good Samaritans” who administered epinephrine to individuals who developed anaphylaxis after being stung by an insect (Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(3) (1990). In addition, the earlier version did not protect Good Samaritans who were grossly negligent. Both of those limitations have been removed.  Today, Good Samaritans are protected if they administer epinephrine, regardless of the allergen involved and even if they are grossly negligent.

What if I administer epinephrine to someone who is not actually having an allergic reaction?

You are protected.  The law only requires that you “have reason to believe” that the individual is suffering, or is about to suffer, a life-threatening reaction.

What about children?  Do I have to get their parent’s permission before injecting a child with epinephrine?

The Good Samaritan Law does not require you to get a parent’s permission before administering epinephrine to a child if you believe that the child is having, or is about to have, an anaphylactic reaction.

What if I am an emergency medical services provider?

By law, emergency medical service providers who administer epinephrine are shielded from civil liability as long as they act in good faith and without compensation and have reason to believe that the individual receiving the injection was suffering or was about to suffer a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.[3]

I am an employee or a volunteer who provides outdoor educational experiences or programs for youth.  Can I be sued if I administer epinephrine to someone having an allergic reaction?

If you are a volunteer, you are protected.  Ordinarily, the Good Samaritan Law does not extend to individuals who are paid.  However, if (1) you are employed by an organization that provides outdoor educational experiences or programs for youth, (2) the child’s doctor has authorized you or your organization to administer epinephrine in the event of an emergency, (3) you have been trained how to do so, and (4) you believe in good faith that the child is having an allergic reaction, then you are protected.  However, you will not be protected if you are grossly negligent or engage in willful and wanton misconduct.[4]

What about the organization that I work for?

If you volunteer with or are employed by an organization that provides outdoor educational experiences for youth, and you are protected, then the organization that you work for or with is also protected, unless there was gross negligence.[5]

I am employed by a school.  Am I protected from civil liability, also?

Yes.  Although the Good Samaritan Law does not ordinarily protect rescuers who are compensated, there is an exception for school employees.

In 2012 and 2013, the General Assembly extended protections to school nurses and the employees of school boards, as long as they believe in good faith that the student is having an anaphylactic reaction, and the rescuer is not grossly negligent.[6]

In 2015, the General Assembly extended the protections to private schools and schools for students with disabilities.[7]

In 2017, the General Assembly amended the statute yet again, to include employees who work in institutions of higher education, both public and private.[8]

What can I do to help someone who is experiencing anaphylaxis?

When anaphylaxis strikes, it is critical to take immediate action.[9]  If you are with someone who is having an allergic reaction, look to see whether they show signs of going into anaphylactic shock: pale, cool and clammy skin; a weak, rapid pulse; trouble breathing; confusion; and/or loss of consciousness.  If they are, then do the following immediately:

  • Call 911.
  • Use an epinephrine autoinjector, if available, by pressing it into the person’s thigh.
  • Make sure that the person is lying down and elevate his or her legs.
  • Check the person’s pulse and breathing and, if necessary, administer CPR or other first-aid measures.

What are the chances that I will have to inject someone with epinephrine?

Hopefully, you will never need to administer epinephrine to someone suffering a life-threatening allergic reaction.  But, the chances of encountering that situation are increasing.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) estimates that anaphylaxis occurs in about one in 50 Americans.  Other estimates place the number closer to one in 20.[20]

According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), more than 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions.[21]  Researchers estimate that 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children under age 18.  That’s one in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom.

Life-threatening allergies are on the rise.  The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergy in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.  Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.  According to FARE, 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food in the United States each year.  Reactions to other allergens like medication, insect stings, and latex drive that number even higher.

Anaphylaxis is alarming, and it can be fatal.  Fortunately, Virginia’s Good Samaritan Law provides powerful legal protections to rescuers so that they, in turn, can provide much-needed medical assistance to victims in emergency situations.

Allen & Allen is dedicated to being a resource for the community. If you or a loved one are injured through no fault of your own, contact us, we are here to help.

[1] Common allergens include food (peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, fish, wheat, and soy), medications, insect stings, and latex.

[2] Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(3).  When it was originally enacted, “Good Samaritans” were only protected if they provided emergency assistance to people who had been injured in an accident or fire.  In 1990, the General Assembly amended the statute to include individuals who provide emergency assistance to people who are ill, as well.  Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(1) (1990).

[3] Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(3); Va. Code Ann. § 32.1-111.4; Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408; see also Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(3) (2003) (extending protections to emergency medical services providers); Va. Code Ann. § 32.1-111.4 (2003); Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408 (2003).

[4] & [5] Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(16); Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408; see also Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(16) (2018) (creating the protection); Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408 (2018) (same).

[6] Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(13); see also Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225 (2012); Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225 (2013); Va. Code Ann. § 22.1-274.2(C); Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408.

[7] Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(A)(14); see also Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225 (2015); Va. Code Ann. § 22.1-321.1; Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408.

[8] Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225(15); see also Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-225 (2017); Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-3408.

[9] Disclaimer: this website does not provide or constitute medical advice.  The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only.  The purpose is to provide broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various legal topics.  It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment, and never disregard professional medical advice or relay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.