Law Does Not Require ‘Big Box’ Store to Keep Defibrillator on Hand in Case of Cardiac Emergencies, Supreme Court Rules

store-store-shopA shopper’s sudden death from cardiac arrest inside a ‘big box” store in southern California triggered an important lawsuit analyzing the extent of businesses’ obligations to take precautionary steps to ensure the safety of their customers. Even though paramedics might require extra time to reach a shopper suffering a cardiac event inside a big box store, the law does not impose a duty on those stores to maintain a defibrillator on hand to deal with these emergencies, the California Supreme Court declared in a recent ruling.

The tragic events that produced this case centered around 49-year-old Ms. Verdugo, who was shopping at a Target store in Pico Rivera with her mother and brother. While inside the store, Verdugo had a heart attack and collapsed. A 911 call was placed, but by the time paramedics reached the woman, she was already dead.

The shopper’s family sued Target for wrongful death, complaining that the store should have maintained an automated external defibrillator for use in situations like the one that befell Verdugo. The family asserted that, given the frequency of sudden and unanticipated cardiac arrests (roughly 300,000 nationally per year) and the very large size of the Pico Rivera store, Target was negligent for not having available the equipment necessary to address Verdugo’s medical emergency. The retailer should have reasonably foreseen that a shopper might have an unexpected cardiac event and that, if such an emergency occurred, it might take paramedics several valuable minutes to reach her inside its massive store to administer care.

A federal court concluded that the case hinged upon whether California law imposes a duty upon stores to have a defibrillator available, and asked the state Supreme Court to rule upon whether or not such a duty exists.

The state’s high court decided that the common law duty of reasonable care did not extend to a store’s obligation keeping a defibrillator on hand. When determining whether a store must take a precautionary measure, such as maintaining a defibrillator, the law balances the likelihood of the harm in question (in this case, a sudden cardiac event), against the degree of burden on the business. Requiring stores to keep defibrillators on hand would be very burdensome because, even though portable defibrillators have become relatively inexpensive (Target sells one online for $1,200), the cost to a store is much more, including maintenance of the devices and training employees regarding the use of the devices and CPR.

The court also rejected the notion that the level of foreseeability is higher with “big box” stores because the stores’ large size and high shopper volume make “it … impossible for emergency crews to reach a stricken” shopper in time. The problem for Verdugo’s family was that they had no evidence that people suffering heart attacks inside big box stores were more likely to die than those suffering similar medical emergencies inside any other business.

The ruling against requiring defibrillators mirrored previous decisions in Florida, Georgia, Illinois and New York, each of which ruled against imposing such a defibrillator duty on businesses.

Although the court ruled against this shopper’s family, the case nevertheless underscores that businesses must engage in reasonable steps to ensure the safety of their customers against foreseeable risks of harm. If you’ve been injured while visiting a big box store or other business, it may be due to that business’s failure to meet its legal obligations. For assistance with your personal injury case, talk to the Oakland personal injury attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our personal injury law attorneys can give you the clear advice and determined representation you need. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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