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EMTs coached on state malpractice law, liability

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MATTOON — A local attorney shared his knowledge surrounding patient malpractice lawsuits with area EMT personnel with hopes that the information will increase overall patient safety.

“Very sincerely, you’d much rather have these guys doing what they need to do to avoid these cases to protect the patient,” said Bill Tapella of Tapella & Eberspacher law firm.

Tapella presented three sessions this week about liability protection, including an explanation of the Emergency Medical Services Systems Act to keep liability suits from hurting area first responders.

“First of all, with why we have an act that gives you a level of protection that frankly doctors don’t get when they are in a hospital setting — and the reason we have this act is that we want to encourage persons like yourself to go out there and do your job without an undue fear that you’re going to have to deal with somebody like me,” Tapella explained during Wednesday’s session. “We don’t want you to think about what might happen from you doing your job, which is helping us survive in an emergency situation.”

Tapella’s firm works mostly with plaintiffs’ medical mal-practice, personnel injury and workers compensation complaints, he explained.

“For my practice specifically, a very large portion of what I do is medical malpractice,” he said.

Tapella told the EMTs to work within the scope of their training because that is where the law covers their actions.

“If you’re ever going to take a step beyond the training you are authorized to do, you need to do so only at the direction of and under the direction of somebody who possesses that level of training,” Tapella said. “Stay within your training and you stay within the coverage of this act that’s providing you with this level of protection,”

Tapella explained how critical documentation can be when an complaint comes down to a minute-by-minute recap of events. Documenting important vital readings or other reasons that lead to a critical decision shouldn’t hurt emergency responders as long as they are truthful and follow protocol, he said.

“I have great respect for what you do out in the field; I understand the pressure that you’re under in the field and obviously that life is always more important than what you’re documenting,” he said.

“But it will make a huge difference with the possibility of dealing with litigation.”

Tapella added that once emergency responders can show a thoughtful approach and a decisionmaking process means they didn’t “consciously disregard” the patient’s well-being, that protects them under the state law.

Following the presentation, Tapella said looking at the big picture is easier than being out in the field dealing with specific circumstances.

“I truly believe what I do for living is a matter of patient advocacy. When you bring a medical malpractice complaint against somebody, obviously you’re seeking money damages, but our tort system is supposed to have two purposes,” he explained. “One is to compensate the victim of the negligence, but the second is to protect patients in the future.

“Obviously these guys are out there every day helping people, and if I can help them in some way in that effort it’s entirely consistent with what I do in my day job.”

Mattoon Fire Department Chief Tony Nichols said Tapella presented similar information several years ago, but this time examples of case law tied it all together. Twenty-six out of the 32 members of the Mattoon department attended the sessions.

Charleston Fire Department Chief Pat Goodwin and Assistant Chief Steve Bennett, Mitchell-Jerden Ambulance Service, Dunn’s Ambulance Service and Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center personnel from Emergency Management office were also represented.

Contact Zyskowski at kzyskowski@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6869.

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