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Suing a physician for errors in provision of free medical care, P.1

A recent article in the online journal, Medical Economics, focused on an issue that doesn’t come up too often in discussions of medical malpractice. That issue is the liability of physicians for errors in the course of volunteer work. What kind of liability do physicians open themselves up to when they engage in volunteer work, and what options for recovery are available to patients who are harmed by a negligent volunteer physicians?

In reality, medical malpractice suits against a volunteer physician or other health care professional are actually rather rare because of protections at the state and federal level. First of all, the Federal Volunteer Protection Act protects non-profit and government volunteers, including physicians and other health care workers, as long as the services provided were within the scope of the provider’s responsibility, the health care workers was authorized to engage in the services or care at issue, and he or she was properly licensed. As can be seen, there are some limitations on liability protection.

Also at the federal level, the Federal Tort Claims Act protects volunteer physicians from liability for medical errors, provided they go through the required credentialing process.

States are free to provide their own protections to volunteer workers. Here in Michigan, the Good Samaritan Law provides protection from civil liability for volunteer health care workers who provide non-emergency health care except in cases where the patient’s injuries were the result of gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, or the intention to harm. The protections available under the law require that the health care worker provides the services provided to the patient are delivered in facilities meeting certain requirements and that the patient was able to sign a waiver of liability.  

In our next post, we’ll continue looking at this topic and the options patients have when they are harmed by a volunteer physician.


Medical Economics, “Volunteering: The benefits and risks for physicians,” Susan Kreimer, Sept. 3, 2015.

Free Clinics of Michigan, “Liability Coverage,” Accessed Sept. 23, 2015.

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