June 23, 2014

California businesses have no common law duty to provide AEDs

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

Today, in Verdugo v. Target, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that state tort law does not require businesses to purchase, maintain, and train employees to use Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDS) if a customer is stricken with a heart attack.  The case arose when Mary Ann Verdugo suffered sudden cardiac arrest while shopping at Target and died before paramedics arrived on the scene.  Target did not have an AED in its store.  Because there is no statutory requirement that retail stores purchase, maintain, and train their employees to use an AED, Verdugo’s family sought an expansion of California common law that would impose a duty on businesses to have AEDs on their commercial properties.

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the court, first noted that acquisition and maintenance of an AED is not a “minor or minimal burden” because in addition to the cost of AED, businesses would have “significant obligations with regard to the number, the placement, and the ongoing maintenance of such devices, combined with the need to regularly train personnel to properly utilize and service the AEDs and to administer CPR, as well as to have trained personnel reasonably available on the business premises.”  The court then held that, with regard to foreseeability, there is “no aspect of Target’s operations or the activities that Target’s patrons engage in on its premises” to suggest that patrons are at a higher risk of sudden cardiac arrest in a Target or any other big-box store than at any other location open to the public.

For these reasons, the court concluded:  “In light of the extent of the burden that would be imposed by a requirement to acquire and make available an AED and in the absence of any showing of heightened foreseeability of sudden cardiac arrest or of an increased risk of death, we conclude that under California law, Target owes no common law duty to its customers to acquire and make available an AED.  Under these circumstances, it is appropriate to leave to the Legislature the policy decision whether a business entity should be required to acquire and make available an AED for the protection of its patrons.”  The court further noted that every other court to consider this issue has concluded that no duty exists.  Justice Werdegar concurred that Target owed no common law duty to have an AED available, but did not adopt the entirety of the court’s reasoning.

Pacific Legal Foundation, along with the National Federation of Independent Business, Small Business Legal Center filed an amicus brief in support of Target, arguing that the common law imposes a duty on business owners to summon medical assistance (call 911), but not to provide treatment with a specified medical device.

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