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SC should revisit its common carrier guidelines

Attorneys usually deal with facts as they are interpreted within existing law, but at times, facts presented indicate that the law itself may need changes or a refined interpretation.  What deserves more protection, if you will, a fine new office desk, or a living, breathing individual?

We pondered this very situation recently when handling 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 taxicab, 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 been in effect for the ambulance.  Among the cases tried here in South Carolina, case law has not considered as common carriers the more non-traditional modes of transportation, such as an ambulance.

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 the victim’s injuries did not require emergent care.  Yet, they proceeded to restrain her by strapping 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 United States, South Carolina has not yet addressed the matter.  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 that ambulances should be treated as a common carrier means of transport.

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 it as it relates to ambulances.  Yet, here in South Carolina, a piece of furniture being transported by a freight line, for example, gets more protection against damage while in transport than a patient being carried in an ambulance.

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 fall under the definition of a common carrier.  As such, they would be responsible for safeguarding persons under their care. It clearly seems logical to this writer and the Clore team that helped prosecute 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.

Our goal every day is to protect the rights of individuals, and we firmly believe that it’s appropriate for our state to consider its role in strengthening the protection of individuals in transport, at least to the level currently afforded that fine mahogany desk that suffered in shipment, but didn’t feel a thing.

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 sam@clorelaw.com.

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