Our firm handles the niche personal injury practice area of
heart attacks in public places. An AED is a small, simple, easy-to-use device that if used properly within
the first few minutes of the onset of the heart attack, will drastically
increase the victim’s chances of survival.
The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled on the legal duty of schools to
use an available AED when a student has a heart attack. The case involved
the death of a high school soccer player in Lee County, Florida.
Recognizing the importance of making these life-saving devices widely available,
the Florida State Legislature has enacted various laws that govern the
requirement and use of AEDs. Some laws require certain types of public
facilities to purchase and keep an Automated External Defibrillator (AED)
on the premises at all times, such as in federal buildings and facilities,
airports, and schools. Other laws require that certain people, such as
medical professionals, be trained and proficient in the use of AEDs.
Still, these laws do not go far enough, as there is no explicit statutory
duty for anyone to actually use an AED in the event they actively witness
someone have a heart attack in public, even if an AED is required on that
premises and is available.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the Cardiac Arrest Survival Act
provides civil immunity to anyone who harms the victim of a medical emergency
through the use or attempted use of an AED, but places no requirement
to actually use an AED. Quite literally, you as a bystander in a gym could
watch someone die from a heart attack, and you or an employee may choose
to simply do nothing to help that victim, even if you are physically standing
next to an AED; or you could choose to use the AED on the victim and try
to save his or her life. Either way, you and everyone else are free from
any legal liability.
Limones Challenges the Absence of a Duty to Act
Abel Limones was a 15 year-old high school soccer player who suddenly collapsed
on the field during a match between two Lee County schools. He had suffered
an unexpected heart attack. Though there was an AED on the field at the
time (which was required by law) and it was within reach, and even though
one of the coaches at his side called out for it, the device was never
brought to Abel’s side. Paramedics arrived on the scene, and eventually
were successful in reviving his heartbeat, but not until approximately
twenty-six minutes after the initial collapse, resulting in a permanent
and severe brain injury which has left him in a vegetative state for the
remainder of his life.
The Limones family sued the school board for damages because the school
did not use the available AED. The trial court dismissed the case on summary
judgment due to the Judge perceiving no common law or statutory duty for
the school board to actually use the AED or any other life-saving technique
on Abel. On appeal, the Second District recognized that the School Board
and a student enjoyed a “special relationship” in that the
School Board owed a common law duty to the students under its care to
prevent or respond to an aggravated injury, but stipulated that this duty
did not extend to the requirement to diagnose a need for specific medical
treatment (i.e., the AED). Therefore, the Second District found that no
breach of duty had occurred.
The Florida Supreme Court’s Decision
On April 2
nd, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court issued its Opinion. In a five to two
vote, the Court overturned the Second District’s ruling, remanding
the case back to the trial court for jury trial.
The Decision expanded the common law duty a public school and its employees
owe a student to not only prevent injuries or harm, but also to administer
reasonable treatment to avoid exacerbation of further injury or harm after
the fact. By not using the readily-available AED while Abel was having
a heart attack, the School Board employees (the soccer team coaches and
staff) who were present that evening during the game in fact breached
As to the issue of immunity, the Court dismissed the School Board’s
argument that the Cardiac Arrest Survival Act immunized them from liability,
regardless of whether the coaches did or did not attempt render aid to
Abel using an AED.
In the opinion, Justice Fred Lewis writes that the purpose of the civil
immunity clause is to encourage witnesses to attempt to save the life
of a victim of a heart attack without fear that their attempt will result
in a subsequent lawsuit. The Act also eliminates the need to gain consent
from an unresponsive victim to administer aid that might save their life.
Therefore, immunity is only available to those who attempt to render aid
via an AED; it shall not extend to those who make no attempt at all.
The majority held that the duty in each case should be determined by the
Courts on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, the case was sent back to Jury
trial in Lee County to determine if the School Board breached their duty
to save Abel’s life using an AED.
How This Decision Will Affect Similar Cases Involving Heart Attacks in
Although this decision is a win for the Limones family, and perhaps other
families who have gone through the horrible experience of losing a son
or daughter to a heart attack that occurred on a school campus, unfortunately,
it is limited in its scope. The case finds only that a public school has
a duty; it does not explicitly find a duty in any other situation.
The extent that a “special relationship” exists in other settings
(other than a school and student setting) is still unknown.
Nevertheless, the fact that this Court found a duty in at least one setting
is a step in the right direction for the victims and their families of
heart attacks in public places.