California top court hears defibrillator case

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The California Supreme Court appeared reluctant Tuesday to require large retailers to keep a defibrillator in stores in case customers suffer cardiac arrest.

During arguments involving a lawsuit against Target in the death of a customer, Justice Marvin Baxter asked how a store clerk would know a customer was suffering cardiac arrest and whether the device could be inappropriately used and cause more harm to a shopper suffering another ailment.

"It may very well be that the good intentions could backfire and do more harm than good," Baxter said.

The six other justices on the court had similar concerns and tough questions for lawyers representing the family of 49-year-old Mary Ann Verdugo in a wrongful death lawsuit against Target.

For two decades, an increasing number of public places in the U.S. have been required to have automated external defibrillators on hand. Airports, casinos, schools, courthouses, fitness centers, amusement parks and many other facilities now have the devices in case someone has sudden cardiac arrest.

The question Tuesday was whether Target and other businesses should have the devices that deliver a jolt of electricity to a stalled heart. Defibrillators can save lives if used immediately after the onslaught of cardiac arrest.

Verdugo suffered cardiac arrest while shopping at a Target store in California in 2008.

Target officials extended their condolences to the Verdugo family, calling the incident an unfortunate but unpreventable tragedy.

The family disagreed and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, arguing that Target should have had a defibrillator on hand and a worker trained to use it.

Justice Ming Chin asked lawyers about other medical emergencies and whether retailers would be required to treat them if the court mandated defibrillators.

"Where do we draw the line?" Chin asked.

The family's lawyer, Robert Roth, said defibrillators are unique devices that are easily administered even by lay people.

Roth said the simplicity of use is one reason to mandate them in stores. Defibrillators issue voice commands and come equipped with sensors that allow jolts of electricity only when necessary.

Target's lawyer Donald Falk said keeping a defibrillator on hand would not be as easy as it might sound.

Falk said Target would be required to purchase a device, maintain it and train workers about its use to treat "something that is entirely random that just happened" to occur in a Target store.

A federal trial judge previously tossed out the lawsuit, agreeing with Target's argument.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012 said state law is unsettled on the question and asked the California Supreme Court to answer it.

The high court's ruling will likely determine the outcome of Verdugo's lawsuit and whether large retailers will be required to have defibrillators.

The California Supreme Court is required to rule within 90 days.