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IS THERE A DOCTOR ON BOARD?

We’re all familiar with hearing a flight attendant ask, “Is there a doctor on board?” due to an in-flight medical emergency. Most of us, however, are probably not familiar with the concept of doctors claiming an entitlement to be paid for the services they provide in response.

Dr. Henry Coopersmith of Montreal recently sued Air Canada in the small claims Court of Quebec for compensation for services rendered during a flight to Paris. Perhaps surprisingly to many, he was successful in his claim for a monetary payment.

Coopersmith and his wife were flying in executive class seats from Montreal to Paris in October, 2006. During the flight, he responded to a request from cabin personnel for medical doctors to assist with passengers in need of attention. Having dealt with that incident, Coopersmith returned to his seat to catch some sleep.

He was later awoken by the head flight attendant, who insisted he intervene in another medical event. Dr. Coopersmith did not immediately volunteer but acquiesced as a result of the flight attendant pleading with him to assist.

He used his skill and expertise to resolve the situation and, an hour or so later, returned to his seat. He was then required to fill out a number of forms.

Afterwards, Coopersmith contacted Air Canada to demand some compensation. He stated that, “As a result of my interventions, patient examinations, evaluations and follow-up as well as filling out the numerous forms required, I was not able to sleep and … was kept busy for a number of hours and was unable to enjoy the flight with my wife”.

The doctor requested two executive class tickets as compensation for the work that he did. Air Canada did not agree and, as a result, Coopersmith sued.

He claimed a total of $3,058 comprising the monetary equivalent of frequent flyer miles for a one-way executive class fare, the value of the medical services rendered, and compensation for the loss of one day of vacation.

The Court determined that it was “not possible to define this relationship as contractual” as there was no express or implied stipulation of an obligation on the part of Air Canada to pay a fee for the services rendered. However, “a situation akin to a contract was generated”.

In the course of its reasons, the Court assessed the impact of a physician’s Code of Ethics. The Code apparently requires a physician to come to the assistance of a patient and provide the best possible care when the patient’s condition could entail serious consequences if immediate medical attention is not given.

The Court concluded that it was “far from certain” that the Air Canada passenger’s condition fell into the category of requiring immediate medical attention to prevent serious consequences. In any event, while the Code of Ethics may require a physician to assist in certain medical emergencies, it is not clear that it precludes claiming payment for services in those circumstances.

The Court, relying on a provision in Quebec’s Civil Code, found that Air Canada was bound to pay “a fair fee for the intervention of Dr. Coopersmith”. It assessed the fee for services rendered at $500 and added another $500 for inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of the flight and the holiday.

Chances are good this decision will spark similar claims in other provinces and we’ll see how the common law courts outside Quebec address this issue. In the meantime, guys like me can only wait in hope for the day when a flight attendant calls out, “Is there a lawyer on board?”

Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log onto www.pushormitchell.com. Past “Legal Ease” columns, may be viewed at http://www.pushormitchell.com/law-library/publication/legal-ease. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice.

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