Verdugo v. Target Corp. – Retail Store Had No Duty to Keep Medical Device on Hand

Per a new ruling by the California Supreme Court, large stores in California are not required to keep automatic defibrillators on hand to treat patrons and/or workers who suffer from cardiac arrest.

The plaintiffs in the wrongful death lawsuit of Verdugo v. Target Corp. argued the retailer should have kept one of the devices on hand as part of its first-aid plan. Ultimately, however, the state’s high court found that would be an unfair burden for the retailer to shoulder.

Still, our Montgomery personal injury attorneys understand the courts left it open for lawmakers to decide whether a requirement to keep the life-saving devices on the premises is necessary.

Over the last 20 years, an increasing number of public places have been required to keep the devices nearby, particularly as they have been manufactured to be smaller and easier to use. The movement started with a 1997 law passed in Florida, and has expanded to federal government buildings, airports and many other public places.

In Alabama, numerous pieces of legislation have addressed the issue of automatic defibrillators. In 1999, it was required that anyone who purchased or owned one had to be properly trained and the device had to be properly-maintained. In 2002, a measure passed requiring a comprehensive plan for training, certification and credentialing of cardiac care providers in the use of the devices. In 2003, state lawmakers passed a measure urging manufacturers of the device to create a registry and report any removals to local emergency health care authorities, so appropriate action may be taken if a call is received. In 2006, legislators amended the Alabama Good Samaritan Law to allow immunity for anyone who uses a defibrillator on another in good faith and without compensation when a person is suffering from sudden cardiac arrest or appears to be suffering from it – except in cases of gross negligence. In 2008 and 2009, laws were passed requiring the devices be available in all public schools and granting money for this purpose.

Thus far, there is no requirement that commercial establishments keep the device in store, though some do, particularly with the amendment to the Good Samaritan Law.

In the Verdugo case, the three-justice panel was tasked with determining whether by common law duty reasonable care, store owners were required to make the device available for business patients who might suffer a medical emergency in the store.

The question was raised after the death of a 49-year-old woman who suffered a sudden heart attack while shopping in a large Target store with her mother and brother. She collapsed on the floor of the store, which did not have a defibrillator available. It was several minutes before paramedics were dispatched, several more before they reached the store and then a few additional minutes before they reached the woman inside the store. They tried to revive her, but could not.

The mother and brother filed a lawsuit against the store, contending that with some 360,000 people suffering from unanticipated heart attacks annually, it was reasonably foreseeable that a customer within such a large store might suffer such an attack and that, due to the store’s size, officials with the retailer should have recognized it would take emergency personnel longer to get to a patient than it might otherwise. They argued the devices are relatively inexpensive (with Target itself selling them for $1,200).

The trial court found the store had no duty to keep the devices available for customers, and this ruling was supported by a divided appellate panel. Upon request for review, the appellate court requested review by the state supreme court.

The court noted that for a person suffering a sudden heart attack, every passing minute without a defibrillator reduces the person’s chance of survival by 7 to 10 percent. The court also pointed out that commercial defibrillators are now highly-accurate, user-friendly and have audio prompting, directing users during each step.

Even so, the court held, unless the legislature determines otherwise, the store has no common law duty of care to ensure the devices are available to customers.

While the ruling has no direct effect on Alabama cases, it’s possible the decision could be referenced should our courts face a similar issue.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:
Verdugo v. Target Corp., June 23, 2014, California Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Liability and Pure Contributory Negligence in Alabama, May 12, 2014, Montgomery Injury Lawyer Blog

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