SC Should Revisit Its Common Carrier Guidelines

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Attorneys usually deal with facts as they are interpreted within existing law, but at times, facts present indicate that the law itself may need changes or a refined interpretation. Such was the situation when we handled a case whereby our client was sexually assaulted while in the care of a county-run ambulance. The assailant actually pled guilty to the criminal charges, so the facts of the case were not in question, but the county that ran the service, which had trained and supervised the assailant, claimed no responsibility. Had our client been in a taxi cab, or on public transportation, the common carrier doctrine would have applied, and the carrier would have been held to a higher degree of liability. Further, had this occurred in many other states, the common carrier principle would have applied to the ambulance. In South Carolina, however, we are woefully behind on this front, as noted by the judge, as he(?) rendered a decision in the case.

In the case in question, our client called 911 for assistance in a domestic abuse assault. When the ambulance arrived, two Charleston County EMS employees reported that her injuries did not require emergent care. Yet, they then proceeded to administer medications that rendered her unable to communicate, strapped her to a spine board, and one of them sexually assaulted her multiple times en route to the hospital. When the suit was brought against the transport entity, they claimed that they had no liability. The plaintiff argued that they had a responsibility to protect her while under their care, and to better screen and train employees to prevent such horrific acts, but lack of designation of an ambulance service as a common carrier in our state clouded the issue.

Despite a growing trend to broaden the application of the common carrier doctrine across the U.S., South Carolina has not yet addressed this. Numerous states have extended the common carrier doctrine to include all forms of moving an individual from one location to another or along a route returning them to the same location. The majority of states that have addressed the issue in recent years have found the ambulance services to be treated as a common carrier.

Rhode Island recently ruled that an ambulance did fall under this doctrine, and our influential neighboring states of Florida and Georgia have both signaled that the doctrine should be more widely interpreted as well, specifically addressing the doctrine as it relates to ambulances. Yet, here in South Carolina, a piece of furniture being transported by a freight line gets more protection against damage while in transport than a patient being carried in an ambulance. Our case points up just how much more valuable the individual in the back of the EMS is when compared to that desk you just ordered from Haverty's.

Given that a common carrier is defined as a licensed individual or company that renders its services to the general public for transportation of people, goods, or property from one place to another in exchange for payment from any person or business, it seems reasonable that an ambulance service would certainly fall under the definition of a common carrier. As such, they would be responsible for safeguarding persons under their care. Certainly seems logical to this writer and the Clore team that helped try this case.

As attorneys, we have a responsibility to examine any case that involves the transport of goods or persons in light of the common carrier doctrine, and as attorneys practicing in South Carolina, we have a responsibility to ensure that the doctrine is appropriately – and consistently applied.

We want to protect the rights of individuals and think it's appropriate for our state to consider their role in strengthening the protection of individuals in transport, at least to the level currently afforded an easy chair.

Sam Allen is an attorney with the Clore Law Group, a Charleston-based catastrophic personal injury and business law firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

Appeared in South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, April 7, 2013

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