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Physician Liability & The Aviation Medical Assistance Act

Data from the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that a medical emergency occurs on approximately every 600 U.S. commercial flights. Physicians may witness such emergencies while aboard a flight and in many other types of settings including stores, traffic accidents, sporting events and more.

Physicians have an ethical responsibility to assist those in need and each state has adopted a “Good Samaritan” provision that encourages medical professionals to assist without fear of later facing civil liability from doing so. The Aviation Medical Assistance Act (AMAA) established this immunity protection for physicians who assist on all U.S.-based flights.

Aviation Medical Assistance Act (AMAA)

Congress implemented the AMAA in 1988 and this “Good Samaritan immunity protection” extends to nurses, physician assistants, EMT’s and paramedics also. The federal statute states that those providing assistance during an “in-flight medical emergency” will “not be liable for damages…in a federal or state court”. The exception would be if the individual demonstrated “gross negligence or willful misconduct”. The AMAA also requires that all aircraft maintain some basic medical equipment and supplies that can be used.

Minimum Equipment & Supply Requirements

Airlines maintain an emergency medical kit (EMK) and train their in-flight staff on proper procedures. Southwest Airlines trains their staff on basic emergency protocol and they have iPads and a means of communication with remote medical “consultants” that can assist. Commercial jets are not ideal settings for providing any long-term medical care due to space, equipment and staff limitations. Those who are more likely to have a medical emergency during a flight are instructed to travel with caution. For example, American Airlines requires women in the later term of a pregnancy to obtain written permission to fly from their doctor.

Diverting a Flight for a Medical Emergency

Diverting a flight amid a medical emergency is typically reserved for situations where the situation is life-threatening. Jose Nable, a professor of emergency medicine at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, co-authored a report about these in-flight emergency situations. He says that the flight captain must carefully analyze these situations when making a decision. The International Air Transport Association estimates that diverting a flight to an alternate landing site can potentially cost as much as $200,000.

Recent Related Suit

Lewis Christman was a passenger on a United flight from Chicago to Rome when he began to experience sudden inflammation of the pancreas (acute pancreatitis). The airline chose not to divert the flight and he spent roughly seven hours agonizing on the floor of the aircraft. He spent several months in hospitals and later sued the airline. Christman feels the flight staff was not properly prepared for the situation and was unable to even locate any pain medication. His claim says that his pancreatitis became infected during the long flight and he later had to have his gallbladder surgically removed.

Plane Accident Injuries & Damages

Airlines have traditionally faced civil liability from much more than passengers who suddenly face a medical emergency. Injuries may occur to passengers during accidents that occur during the takeoff or landing of the aircraft. Common injuries include head trauma, damage to the neck or back regions, or broken bones in the extremities.

Those severely injured in aviation accidents may require emergency care, surgical procedures, lengthy periods of rehabilitation and more. The injured may pursue financial compensation in these instances to recover for damages such as costly medical expenses, wages lost and pain and suffering. In fatal accidents, the surviving family may bring a wrongful death action with assistance from an experienced personal injury attorney.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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