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.