Verdict Requiring AED Reversed

The courts aren't requiring fitness facilities to install AEDs and have staff trained to use them - yet.

The only reported jury verdict against a fitness facility related to the lack of an automated external defibrillator (AED) to deal with an emergency occurring in that facility was reversed by a Court of Appeals in Florida. The verdict at issue, which was for more than $600,000 and rendered by a Broward County jury in March 2006, was reversed in April 2008 in the case of Julianna Tringali Mayer v. L.A. Fitness International.

The case had originally been filed against this facility based on four principal allegations: 1) Failure to screen; 2) Failure to administer CPR; 3) Failure to have and use an AED; and 4) Failure to train staff in the handling of medical emergencies.

A number of experts testified in the case, including the qualified and well-known cardiologist Dr. Steven Van Camp, who testified for the plaintiff. The jury's verdict for the plaintiff was appealed by the facility, which argued that the facility's only obligation to the decedent was to use reasonable care - which duty, it contended, it met.

A change of opinion

The appellate court agreed with the fitness center, and determined the following:
  1. The facility had no legal duty to have CPR-qualified employees on site.
  2. The facility had no duty to have an AED on the premises for emergency use on the decedent.
The court recognized the evidence presented at trial, and the fact that the fitness industry is moving toward requiring the presence of both CPR-trained employees and AEDs in such facilities. It held, as virtually all similar courts have previously ruled, that the question of whether a legal duty exists is one to be determined by a court, not a jury. As this court stated, if a court decision is made recognizing that a duty exists, then the question of whether a judicially recognized duty was breached is for a jury to determine.

Moreover, the Florida appellate court also determined, "Although the custom and practice of an industry can help define a standard of care a party must exercise after it has undertaken a duty, industry standards do not give rise to an independent legal duty." Despite the industry effort, the court ruled that no duty existed as to the CPR and AED matters. Consequently, the court reversed the lower court's judgment, and set aside the jury verdict rendered for the plaintiff.

A question of duty

While the appellate court did not address the screening issue, the court, in essence, determined that the only duty a facility had to its clients was to summon paramedic personnel in the event of an emergency within a reasonable time - at least in the absence of specifically enacted statutory requirements to the contrary. To date, at least as reflected by this ruling, the court system - in the absence of legislatively enacted statutory law to the contrary - has not followed the industry trend toward requiring both CPR-trained employees and AEDs on site during all facility operational times.

Despite the ruling in this case, facilities should seek individual legal and risk-management advice as to the best practices to follow to meet their potential duties and responsibilities to patrons on the issues of screening, emergency response and similar matters.
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