Lynne Curry: Fearing liability for helping, employers turn their backs

ManagementBy LYNNE CURRYMarch 24, 2013 

Two weeks ago, a nurse at the Glenwood Gardens independent-living facility in Bakersfield, Calif., stood by and let an 87-year-old woman go without assistance, despite a 911 dispatcher begging her to perform CPR or find someone else willing to help the woman.

When the nurse refused to provide CPR, saying it violated her employer's policies, the dispatcher said, "I understand if your boss is telling you you can't do it. But ... as a human being ... you know, is there anybody that's willing to help this lady and not let her die?"

"Not at this time," responded the nurse.

"Can we flag someone down in the street and get them to help this lady? Can we flag a stranger down? I bet a stranger would help her," begged the dispatcher. Even after the operator told the nurse her employer couldn't be sued if anything went wrong during the resuscitation attempt -- saying the local emergency medical system "takes the liability for this call" -- the nurse refused to look for anyone else who might help.

An aberration? Unfortunately, no. Fearful of liability, many employers now enforce similar policies and, worse, terminate employees who let humanity and common sense prevail.

Last July, Jeff Ellis Management fired a Florida lifeguard who saved a drowning man because the lifeguard swam 1,500 yards past his assigned boundaries. When two other lifeguards said they'd covered the fired lifeguard's area for him when he swam out and said they would have made the same decision the fired lifeguard had, JEM fired them as well.

Last December, AutoZone fired an employee brave enough to sneak out of a store, grab a legally registered gun from his car and come back in to yell "freeze" at an armed robber pointing a gun at his manager's head as his manager knelt in front of a safe. Despite the employee's heroism, AutoZone management adhered to their zero-tolerance-for-weapons policy and fired the employee.

Employees are understandably fearful of violating their employer's policies -- but at the cost of human life? Says Human Resources Professionals Group founder Renee Davies: "When liability concerns and lawsuits change human behavior to this degree, something has gone terribly wrong. Human life and safety should outweigh concerns a business might face a lawsuit for doing the right thing." As elder law attorney and gerontologist Susan Geffen said, "I think it's immoral and unethical -- and in this particular case, since this woman is a trained nurse, it's unconscionable."

Although some commentators note that CPR might have caused harm, Dr. Rick McPheeters, chair of emergency medicine at Kern Medical Center, said there is no age limit for CPR: "If a patient is in cardiac arrest to where they need CPR, the alternative is just letting them die." While complications like fractured ribs can result, the "benefits outweigh the risks."

Further delay -- in this case six minutes and 19 seconds -- costs. Said University of Washington emergency physician Dr. Michael Sayre, "The earlier you start, the bigger the effects." If you see an "adult collapse, you need to call 911 and start chest compression immediately." Meanwhile, though the deceased woman's family feels comfortable with what happened, city fire officials report the deceased didn't have a "do not resuscitate" order.

Even if something had gone wrong, the federal Cardiac Arrest Survival Act and California's Good Samaritan Law protect individuals assisting a victim during a medical emergency and would have shielded the nurse from damages. Further, according to lawyer Ken Gutsch, Alaska's Good Samaritan statute, AS 09.65.090, provides immunity (for ordinary negligence) to someone who renders first aid (except for gross negligence or advanced interventions such as defibrillations or tracheotomies).

Meanwhile, police are determining whether a crime was committed when the facility's representative refused to assist the 911 dispatcher in looking for someone to start CPR; she didn't provide aid or find someone who might want to help and wouldn't hand the phone to anyone else.

Finally, the nurse who hesitated to act apparently misunderstood her employer's policy. According to a press release from the from Glenwood Garden's parent company, "This incident resulted from a complete misunderstanding of our practice with regards to emergency medical care for our residents." As a result of this incident, the nation's largest trade group for senior living facilities asks its members to review policies that employees might interpret as edicts to not cooperate with emergency responders.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co. Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne Curry on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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