Not performing CPR on unconscious stranger a greater legal risk than providing aid, study finds

PHILADELPHIA — First responders may always be prepared to help resuscitate an unconscious person, but for the rest of us, performing CPR on an ailing individual can be a daunting and frightening task. Many people even fear stepping in and helping a fallen stranger could put them in a legal bind should their chest compression attempts make things even worse. Perhaps surprisingly, however, a new study reveals that not doing anything at all actually raises a person’s chances of facing litigation.

Of course, every state employs “Good Samaritan” laws, which protect people who try to help someone they believe to be in hurt or in danger of harm. In theory it would seem natural to want to step in and provide aid to an injured person, but when suddenly thrust in that scenario, fears of making things worse or not knowing what to do cause folks to freeze. This latest line of research aims to scare people out of that mindset.

“The misgivings people express about being blamed for a bad outcome if they were to perform bystander CPR is essentially unfounded,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Travis Murphy, an emergency medicine attending physician and a fellow in surgical critical care at the University of Florida in Gainesville, in a statement. “A person is much more likely to be taken to court for not providing CPR soon enough.”

For the study, Murphy and his team reviewed 170 lawsuits between 1989 and 2019 involving the use or nonuse of CPR. Ultimately, just a few revolved around a person performing CPR. Instead, far more were tried over an individual who either waited too long to provide aid or performed inadequate CPR.

More specifically, 167 of the lawsuits complained of negligence, while three accused a person of battery for providing CPR. Of the battery cases, two were ruled in favor of the defendant, the bystander who stepped in to help. Conversely, among the negligence cases, less than half — just 74 — were ruled in favor of the defendant.

In fact, more than $620 million was awarded to complainants as settlements or punitive damages for delays in CPR, compared to about $120,000 awarded in cases where CPR was performed.

“We hope this information would encourage people trained in bystander CPR to use the skills they have learned and help save a life,” says Murphy.

The study is being presented at the American Heart Association’s Resuscitation Science Symposium 2019 in Philadelphia.