Every year, more than 400,000 people in America die from sudden cardiac arrest, better known as a heart attack. The key to surviving these attacks, according to medical experts, is a rapid initiation of a “chain of survival,” which includes CPR. Another important tool is an automated external defibrillator, or AED. It can be used by people who aren’t medically trained, and it’s believed to save 20,000 lives a year. It could save up to 50,000 lives if it became more broadly used. But do facilities have a duty to carry these machines?
The courts have been confronted with this question on more than one occasion, and the results have been varied. Often, it comes down to the type of facility and the duty owed to the person suffering the medical episode. The devices are found in airports, malls, casinos, churches, and schools, as well as in medical settings. There are advocates who say these devices should be required in all public buildings, transportation centers, and even in large apartment and office complexes. Some states have passed laws. South Carolina passed one in 2008, requiring the devices in schools, and North Carolina passed its own measure in 2009, which allows anyone to use the device and provides broad immunity from liability for volunteers who do so.
Still, these matters continue to be tested in the courts. Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court in Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church was asked to consider whether the church could be liable for the wrongful death of a parishioner who died in an exercise class at a fitness center the church owned and operated. Specifically at issue was whether the church was negligent in its failure to use the AED that was on site and to comply with applicable statutes. The church then filed a third-party lawsuit against the company from which it purchased the AED, asserting that if the plaintiff obtained a judgment against the church, the seller should be the only party responsible to pay that judgment. The plaintiff filed a second complaint that named this seller as a defendant.
The seller moved for summary judgment in both cases, arguing it had no duty of care to the plaintiff (the widow of the decedent) or her husband. The trial court denied the motion, but the state supreme court reversed.
According to court records, the plaintiff’s husband collapsed and died shortly after participating in a bicycle class at the center. The course instructor called 911 as soon as the man collapsed but didn’t try to find or use the AED that was on site.
The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged that the church failed to use the device on site or to train the people who worked at the facility on how to properly use it. She also asserted the church failed to abide applicable state laws.
In the church’s lawsuit against the seller, it alleged the seller had promised in the contract to provide a doctor oversight program, which included ensuring the church was compliant with all applicable statutes and regulations regarding the device.
In its review of the wrongful death lawsuit, the state supreme court ruled that the seller of the AED did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff’s husband or other users of that facility, who were not parties to the contract it had with the church. Furthermore, there was no law that mandated the church had to acquire the AED or use it, which meant neither the plaintiff nor her husband could be third-party beneficiaries of that contract.
The court ordered the case be remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment on behalf of the defendant.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church , Dec. 22, 2016, Tennessee Supreme Court
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