Legislators are moving swiftly to undo last year’s state Supreme Court ruling that allowed rescue squads to be sued for their actions in emergency situations.
The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee on Thursday passed by a 10-0 vote S-2165, which would extend the same statutory immunity that protects squad members to the squads themselves.
It was the second unanimous vote this year for the measure. The Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee passed its version, A-3282, by a 10-0 vote on Jan. 14.
The legislation has bipartisan support and no active opposition, and lawmakers have added amendments meant to strengthen the protections by heading off potential differentiation between volunteer and nonvolunteer squads.
Senate co-sponsor Christopher "Kip" Bateman, R-Somerset, says he is hoping for a full Senate vote before the Legislature breaks in April to focus on the state budget.
"I don’t foresee a delay at this point," says Bateman, a partner with DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum in Warren. "Any concerns that a couple individuals had I think were addressed with the amendments."
The bill is aimed at the court’s July 17 ruling in Murray v. Plainfield Rescue Squad, 210 N.J. 581, that N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 immunizes only "officers or members" of rescue squads — along with doctors, nurses, some emergency technicians, and hospitals and their trustee boards and staff — from liability in providing "intermediate life support services" in good faith.
A separate immunity provision does include rescue squads, but only for acts committed in rendering "advanced life support services," not intermediate services.
Intermediate services include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), cardiac monitoring and defibrillation, while advanced services include intravenous therapy, drug administration and trauma care.
S-2165, introduced on Aug. 20, and A-3282, introduced on Sept. 27, proposed adding "first aid, ambulance or rescue squads" to the list of those immunized.
Subsequent amendments would make changes to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-13.1, which at present immunizes volunteer rescue squads in connection with provision of emergency services or execution of training exercises.
The definition of covered entities would be clarified to include nonvolunteer squads, as well as "hybrid" squads that are staffed by volunteers but receive government reimbursement.
Committee Chairman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington, the lone Democratic co-sponsor, said in January that exclusion of rescue squads in N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 appeared to have been an oversight. "We’re going to correct that, and make it clear to the court this Legislature’s desires and make sure that those volunteer agencies that are doing, at low cost, a great service … can continue to function without threat of lawsuit," he said.
But the court, in issuing Murray, found the exclusion deliberate.
Justice Barry Albin said the Legislature, before the 1985 enactment of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29, "evidently intended to shield rescue squads rendering advanced life support services, and not rescue squads rendering intermediate life support services."
The initial versions each contained immunity provisions similar to that found in the provision immunizing advanced, rather than intermediate, life-support services, he said.
But the Legislature "rejected that language and enacted the legislation as it appears today," Albin said.
The New Jersey State First Aid Council, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance favor the legislation.
The New Jersey Association for Justice, which represents plaintiff lawyers, had not testified or otherwise weighed in on the legislation as of Thursday.
President Scott Leonard, reached by telephone, says the NJAJ is still reviewing it, but "we don’t favor bills that provide immunity, generally."
"Our civil justice system is designed to protect those harmed," says Leonard, a partner at Leonard & Leonard in Morristown. "That’s our view on any of these immunity bills. … We’re always concerned when it’s going to deny the injured party, at least, its day in court."
As of Thursday, no floor vote had been scheduled for A-3282.
Murray is on remand.
Geraldine and Odis Murray lodged the suit against the Plainfield Rescue Squad in connection with its response to the Aug. 4, 2004, shooting of their son Odis.
Odis, 25, was shot in the chest by his younger brother outside the family home.
EMTs arrived minutes after the 9-1-1 call at 5:12 a.m. and began performing CPR and providing oxygen, defibrillation and ventilation to Odis, who was without a pulse when they arrived.
Geraldine, who worked as a critical care nurse, allegedly asked them why they were not transporting Odis to nearby Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center or intubating him.
About 15 minutes after their arrival, the EMTs called for a Medevac helicopter but canceled the request because protocol prohibited it for a patient in cardiac arrest.
Another 15 minutes elapsed before Odis’ arrival by ambulance at Muhlenberg. Odis was still alive, but life-saving measures failed and he was pronounced dead at 6:10 a.m.
The Murrays claimed the EMTs were liable for Odis’ death by failing to provide critical care at the scene or bring him to Muhlenberg sooner.
The plaintiff expert, Assistant Burlington County Medical Examiner William Manion, opined that the EMTs wasted more than 30 minutes and would have afforded Odis a 20 percent to 30 percent chance of survival if they transported him immediately.
Union County Superior Court Judge Katherine Dupuis, finding immunity applicable, dismissed the claims against the squad on summary judgment.
The Appellate Division affirmed in part.
But the court reversed 5-0, holding that the statute’s plain language implicates only squad members, not the squad itself.
The matter was referred to Union County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Grispin.
Grispin denied a renewed motion for summary judgment by the Plainfield Rescue Squad claiming that Manion offered net a opinion, according to its lawyer, Gerald Gunning of Stein McGuire Pantages & Gigl in Livingston.
The parties are awaiting a trial date before a different judge, and there’s no indication they will reach a settlement before then, Gunning says.