A tragedy on a youth ball field nearly seven years ago drove the Florida Supreme Court to change Florida law today. The Court held that the family of a former high school student who suffered ventricular fibrillation during a soccer game on a school field can sue the school district for failure to use an automated external defibrillator (AED) on him, despite the fact that courts had already recognized that Florida law did not require the coaches and other school employees to do so. This judicial change to interpretation of Florida law provides an avenue to suit for this family, but it exposes Florida public schools to financial liability far greater than they faced yesterday. What this means for the future of youth sports in Florida is anyone’s guess.
The facts break your heart. Abel Limones collapsed during a soccer game at a Lee County high school. Adults called 911 and performed CPR, but could not revive Abel. There was an AED on campus, but it wasn’t used. When emergency medical personnel arrived, they restarted Abel’s heart with a semi-automatic defibrillator and intravenous medication. He survived, but remains severely brain-damaged, in a persistent vegetative state.
The family’s lawyers argued that the court should hold the school district—at bottom, the taxpayers—financially responsible. The lower courts recognized that Florida law prohibited such a conclusion. But the Florida Supreme Court saw fit to disagree.
Inventing a new legal duty for public schools to use an AED in life-threatening situations will likely affect every sports facility or program that is made available for youth athletics. They will all have to prepare to use an AED if an athlete collapses — or face legal and financial liability.
No one can doubt the justices of the Court had good intentions in reaching its decision; but unfortunately, the unintended consequences of diminishing sports opportunities for young people in many ways and in many venues will likely result. Not just public schools, but all owners and operators of youth sports fields and facilities, will confront new expenses and uncertainties; and community youth leagues will likely see their volunteer base shrink — increasing the risks and costs for those who stay behind.
PLF identified these risks for the Court in its amicus brief. If those risks troubled the justices of this Court, they did not let on.