California Supreme Court Rules Commercial Property Owners Have No Duty To Provide Defibrillators To Their Patrons
In a favorable decision for commercial property owners in this state, the California State Supreme Court has ruled that there is no common law duty or obligation for commercial property owners to acquire and make available an AED (automatic external defibrillator) for the use of its patrons in a medical emergency. (Verdugo, et al. v. Target Corporation (2014) DJDAR 8060)
In reaching this decision, the Court reviewed existing California statutes relating to the acquisition and use of AEDs in nonmedical settings and the common law duty of a business to take reasonable action to protect and aid patrons who sustain an injury or suffer illness while on the business’s premises.
Ms. Mary Ann Verdugo was shopping at a Target with her mother and brother when she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed. Target did not have an AED in its store. Paramedics were dispatched but it took them several minutes to reach Verdugo. The paramedics attempted to revive her, but were unable to do so. Verdugo’s mother and brother filed a lawsuit against Target, maintaining that Target breached its duty of care by failing to have an AED onsite for use in a medical emergency. Plaintiffs argued that it was reasonably foreseeable that a patron might suffer such an attack and that Target should have known that it would take emergency services many minutes to reach a cardiac arrest victim, making an onsite AED a medical necessity.
In finding that Target did not have a duty to provide an AED, the Court first reviewed current California AED statutes as Target argued that these statutes precluded the recognition of a common law duty to provide them. Health and Safety Code section 1797.196 and Civil Code section 1714.21 provide immunity for “Good Samaritans” who attempt to administer emergency aid with AEDs as well as immunity for the persons or entities who acquire AEDs for emergency use, as long as the AEDs are properly maintained and personnel are properly trained how to use them.
Further, Health and Safety Code section 104113 requires that every health studio acquire and maintain an AED, and Government Code section 8455 relates to the placement of AEDs in state-owned and state-leased buildings. The Court reviewed the history and intent of these statues and concluded that the Legislature did not intend to “occupy the field” with regard to AEDs so as to preclude the operation of general common law principals applicable to commercial property owners.
The Court then turned to the question of whether Target has a common law duty to acquire and make available AEDs to aid a patron in a medical emergency and found that it does not. California common law provides for a “special relationship” between a business entity and its patrons. Past California cases have recognized that a business may have a duty to take reasonable action to protect or aid patrons who sustain an injury or suffer an illness while on the business’s premises.
In considering the scope of a business’s common law duty in this regard, the Court considered whether Target had a duty to take the precautionary step of acquiring and making available an AED in advance of a medical emergency in light of the possibility that such a medical emergency might occur on the business premises sometime in the future.
The Court found that aside from the initial cost of the AEDs, there were significant obligations with regard to the number, placement, and the ongoing maintenance of the devices, combined with the need to regularly train personnel to use and service the devices and have such personnel available on the premises, all of which creates more than a minor burden on the business owner. The Court also looked at the issue of foreseeability and found that the risks of such an event were no greater at Target than at any other location open to the public.
In light of the significant 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, the Court concluded that Target owes no common law duty to its customers to acquire and make available an AED.