I drove by a motorcycle accident on the way to work. As an experienced emergency room nurse, I stopped to assist the injured driver until paramedics arrived on scene. Was I legally obligated to stop and assist, and will I be liable for the care I delivered if the person does not fully recover?
In most Canadian jurisdictions (with the exception of Quebec), there is no legal duty that forces a nurse to aid someone in an emergency. A nurse may feel a moral or ethical duty to assist, but they cannot be held liable for not assisting when there is no legal duty to do so.
Most nursing regulators incorporate the Canadian Nurses Association’s Code of Ethics into their standards. The Code recognizes that although nurses have a professional duty and a legal obligation to provide patients with safe, competent, compassionate and ethical care, “there may be some circumstances in which it is acceptable for a nurse to withdraw from care provisions or to refuse to provide care.”1
For example, the practice guideline for providing care in emergency situations issued by the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia (CRNNS) states that while there is an expectation that nurses will provide care and absorb a certain amount of risk in doing so, there is no expectation for them to place themselves at unnecessary risk during an emergency. The guideline also states that there are situations in which it may be acceptable for registered nurses to withdraw or refuse care.2
In Quebec, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms imposes a positive duty for all persons to come to the aid of anyone in peril. Although there is a positive duty to assist in Quebec, the Code of ethics of nurses provides an exemption “in the event of danger to the nurse or a third party, or unless the nurse has another valid reason.”3
To reduce people’s reluctance to assist someone out of fear of being held liable for injury or wrongful death, all Canadian provinces and territories have enacted legislation that provides protection from liability for those who voluntarily come to the assistance of others in emergency situations. This legislation is generally known as “Good Samaritan” legislation,4 but it has various titles, such as the Emergency Medical Aid Act,5 the Volunteer Emergency Aid Act,6 the Volunteer Services Act,7 and the Volunteers Liability Act.8 Additionally, some provinces and territories have included this protection in their nursing legislation.9
There is a legislative exception to this protection when gross negligence has occurred. The Supreme Court of Canada has described gross negligence as “very great negligence.” Gross negligence would be a conscious or voluntary disregard for nursing standards.
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2. “Duty to Provide Care in Emergency Situations”, Practice Guideline, The College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, https://crnns.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Duty-to-Provide-Care-in-Emergency-Situations.pdf, March 12, 2018.
3.Publications Quebec website, Code of ethics of nurses, Nurses Act, Professional Code, chapter I-8, r. 9, s.1.; http://legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/ShowDoc/cr/I-8,%20r.%209/
Published November 2015; revised April 2018
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