Be a better medic by knowing the legal and legislative process

We don’t all need to be EMS lawyers but knowing a few basics about the impact of court decisions will make you a better EMS provider


Editor's note: Part 1 of 2

By Wes Ogilvie, MPA, JD, LP, NRP

There are a few constants in the world of EMS. Some providers are trauma/adrenalin junkies. A lot of fire and EMS equipment suppliers are kept in business by rookie EMS providers who think they might need every piece of EMS equipment, just in case, and we armchair medic any movie or TV show about EMS.  

Another constant I’ve found is that the media knows very little about the law. At the same time, they know that sensationalism sells newspapers, page views, and commercials. Objectively, I can understand and appreciate that. But too often EMS providers get the wrong understanding of the legal and legislative processes from the news.

(Image Wes Ogilvie)
(Image Wes Ogilvie)

It’s the law, but it’s not MY law

One of the recurring themes I see in the EMS social media is the panic that comes out whenever there’s a court decision involving EMS. In most of the situations the panic is unwarranted, primarily because the court decision has limited applicability to you.

First, ask what kind of court it is. Trial court decisions don’t have any precedential value. Precedential value means that other courts in the same jurisdiction have to follow that decision.

Decisions from appeals courts do have precedential value. Appeals courts don’t review the facts, but rather, the application of the law to the case.

For the court's decision to apply to you and your practice of EMS, the court has to have jurisdiction over you. For example, if you live in Kansas, your speed limits are a matter of Kansas law, not Florida law. And a Kansas state trooper can’t choose to apply Florida traffic law. Likewise, Texas EMS providers aren’t bound by a state scope of practice, while Arizona EMS providers do have a state scope of practice.

It is MY law

So, what courts’ decisions apply to you? First and foremost, your state’s highest court (often called the state Supreme Court) decisions always apply.

Your state may also have courts of appeals that are between the trial courts and the state’s highest court.  These courts may or may not be divided by regions. If these courts have regional jurisdiction, then their decisions only have precedential value in their jurisdiction.

For example, the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio has interpreted the Texas Good Samaritan Act to apply to EMS providers in certain circumstances. This presents a perfect example of a state court deciding a case based on a specific state law. The law in question is Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code §74.002. The case can be found at Moore v. Trevino, S.W. 3d 723 (Tex. App. – San Antonio 2002).

For federal law (including many decisions on constitutional rights and liberties), the United States Supreme Court has precedential value nationwide. The United States Courts of Appeals have regional jurisdiction. For example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Of course, the same rules apply with statutes and administrative rules. Federal statutes and regulations apply nationwide. (Think HIPAA.) State laws and regulations apply in their specific states. And of course, county and city ordinances and regulations only apply in their respective areas.

Wes Ogilvie is a Texas licensed and nationally registered paramedic as well as a Texas attorney. He blogs at www.theambulancechaser.com. When he’s not knee deep in contracts or patient care, he’s passionate about good barbecue and EMS education. He’s currently employed in state government, where he does not deal with EMS regulation, volunteers his weekends as a paramedic, and is an instructor in several EMS disciplines including his position as an adjunct assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Nevada.

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