Lack of Employee Expertise Blocks Defibrillator Suit

January 2, 2003 ( - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has found a state law preventing common citizens from using a defibrillator rendered moot a lawsuit against an employer health club who failed to maintain the device on its premises, according to a report by The Legal Intelligencer.

In the majority opinion, the state’s high court found the state legislature clearly intended only those trained and licensed to operate an automated external defibrillator (AED).

“The legislature’s enactments and the ensuing regulations reveal that acquisition, maintenance, and use of an [automated external defibrillator], along with AED training requirements, are highly regulated,” Chief Justice Stephen Zappala, said in the opinion.

“Where our lawmakers have so thoroughly considered the statewide application and implications of a subject, this court must refrain from imposing additional requirements upon that legislation.”

Heart Attack

Jerry Atcovitz collapsed at Gulph Mills Tennis Club on January 16, 1996 suffering from a heat attack and minutes later a stroke.   Upon his collapse, members of the club administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation and called for an ambulance.

Emergency medical technicians arrived a few minutes later and began administering a series of AED shocks before taking Atcovitz to the hospital. Atcovitz survived, but not without permanent injuries, including nervous system disorders and a brain injury known as anoxic encephalopathy.

Atcovitz and his wife sued Gulph Mills for negligence, alleging that if it had an AED on the premises, Jerry Atcovitz’s injuries would have been significantly less.  Gulph Mills countered that even if it did have an AED, its employees would have been prohibited by law from using it.

Earlier Court Rulings

In the initial trial a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge granted a motion by Gulph Mills for summary judgment and dismissed the case, basing its decision on its opinion that under the Emergency Medical Services Act, Gulph Mills employees would have been precluded from using the AED.

However, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed in an appeal. It concluded that the trial court was wrong to rely on the EMS Act because it pertains only to trained professionals, not the common citizen, such as the employees of Gulph Mills.

Additionally, the superior court addressed the AED Good Samaritan Act, which places “Good Samaritan civil immunity” on an untrained citizen who, in good faith, uses an AED in an emergency situation.

Even though the act was enacted after the plaintiff’s incident. The superior court said the act showed that the legislature was of an opinion that use of an AED should not be restricted to trained professionals.

Supreme Court Decision

The supreme court said the issue in the case was one of duty. He cited the court’s 2000 opinion in Althaus v Cohen, in which a five-part test was developed to determine whether a common law duty of care exists.  In this case, the court focused on only one part of the test, the overall public interest if Gulph Mills had such a device, and the implications of the EMS and AED Good Samaritan acts on this interest.

The supreme court disagreed with the superior court that the EMS Act was not relevant to the decision. The act is relevant to show that use of an AED, and the training requirements of using that device, is highly regulated, according to the court’s opinion.  The mere fact that the legislature excluded the common man from the act indicated that the legislature intended the act to prevent untrained professionals from using an AED in emergency situations.

“It would be absurd for the governmental system charged with rendering effective emergency medical care to hinder the delivery of that care using AEDs through the system, while ordinary citizens would be duty-bound to acquire, maintain, and use AEDs free from any regulation by the Department of Health.”

Additionally, the majority did not agree with the lower court’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan Act.

The supreme court explained that the act merely provides for an exception to the general rule of providing civil immunity to trained users of an AED device.  “Thus, the AED Good Samaritan Act merely creates an exception for imposing liability on an untrained individual who uses an AED in limited emergency situations; it does not authorize its use by any such individual,” the opinion said.

Therefore, the court, in overturning the superior court’s decision, found there was no duty under which Gulph Mills should have acquired and maintained an AED on its premises.