Premises Liability: Automated External Defibrillators

Verdugo v. Target Corp., (Supreme Court of California, June 23, 2014) — P.3d —-, 59 Cal.4th 312, — P.3d —-, 2014 Daily Journal D.A.R. 8060

The heirs of a 49-year-old woman who died after suffering sudden cardiac arrest while shopping at a Target department store filed a wrongful death action against Target Corp., contending that the defendant breached the duty of care that it owed to the decedent by failing to have on hand an automated (or automatic) external defibrillator (AED) for use in a medical emergency. The plaintiffs alleged that it took the paramedics several minutes to reach the store and a few additional minutes to reach the victim inside the store, and that the paramedics attempted to revive her but were unable to do so.

The Plaintiffs alleged that an AED was an essential element of the life-saving first aid that Target was obligated to provide to its patrons, in view of the large number of persons (300,000) in the U.S. who suffer an unanticipated sudden cardiac arrest each year, and the large number of customers who shop in Target’s department stores. They further alleged that it was reasonably foreseeable that a patron might suffer such an attack in its store, and that because of the size of the store Target should have known that it would take emergency medical personnel many minutes to reach a sudden cardiac arrest victim, making an onsite AED a medical necessity.

The federal district court granted Target’s motion, concluding that Target had no duty to acquire and make available an AED for the use of its customers. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the question to the California Supreme Court, which concluded that under California law, Target’s common law duty of care to its customers does not include a duty to acquire and make available an AED for use in a medical emergency:

There is nothing … to suggest that the risk of death from sudden cardiac arrest in a big-box store is any greater than the risk of death from sudden cardiac arrest that occurs at any other location that is equally or more distant from existing emergency medical services.

In light of the extent of the 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, we conclude that under California law, Target owes no common law duty to its customers to acquire and make available an AED. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate to leave to the Legislature the policy decision whether a business entity should be required to acquire and make available an AED for the protection of its patrons.

[M]any other states have also, by statute, identified health or fitness studios as places where AEDs are required to be provided, and some jurisdictions have designated other locations—for example, schools, public recreational facilities, and government buildings—as places where AEDs must be made available. We are aware of only one state that by statute has singled out large retail department stores, such as the Target store at issue here, as a location where an AED is required to be provided.

Furthermore and most significantly, to date every state appellate court that has confronted the legal question that is before us in this case—namely, whether a business’s common law duty to assist patrons who become ill on the business’s premises includes a duty to acquire and make available an AED—has concluded that the business’s common law duty does not impose such an obligation. (citations) The uniformity of these sister-state appellate decisions lends support to our conclusion regarding the scope of Target’s common law duty under California law.