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The Shocking Truth -- Florida's Defibrillator Law

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Automated External Defibrillators (AED) are those breadbox-sized white boxes adorned with a bright red heart and lightning bolt seen in restaurants, bars, shopping malls and hotels across the country. They contain a lifesaving medical device designed to shock failing hearts back to life. AEDs are based on relatively simple technology designed for use by laypeople to analyze heart rhythms and determine whether or not a shock is required.

Sadly, when Florida high school soccer player Abel Limones, Jr. collapsed during an intramural match, his coaches, players, principal and even school nurse ignored an available AED that sat idly by on a nearby golf cart as CPR was performed. Eventually, 911 was called. The child went nearly 23 minutes without resuscitation. By the time Fire Rescue arrived, the boy was left with catastrophic brain damage. Today, he lives in a constant vegetative state requiring 24-hour care.

The family, heartbroken and outraged, sued Lee County's School District and School Board for negligence in failing to use the AED to jump-start the boy's heart. The circuit court judge dismissed his case forcing the family to appeal. Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal recently heard the case, affirming the dismissal, finding that "the... School Board had no common law duty to make available, diagnose the need for, or use an AED on Abel."

The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) founded in 1920 is a not-for-profit organization responsible for interscholastic athletic programs like Abel's soccer match. It, as well as Florida Statute §1006.165(1), requires public schools to maintain AEDs and provide a properly-trained employee on school grounds at all times.

Incredibly, the Court found that Abel's school was in legal compliance, since it had an available AED and a trained employee at the game -- but that the school had no obligation to use it. Florida's Cardiac Arrest Survival Act §768.1325 provides legal immunity to "people" who try to reasonably help someone in an emergency. Its purpose is to encourage people to try to save a life without fear of being sued if something goes wrong. The Court misapplied this law, based upon the Good Samaritan law, and extended immunity to the school, even though it admitted to never even try to use the device.

In dismissing Abel's case, the Court analogized his school's lack of responsibility to that of a restaurant owner's duty to administer the Heimlich or perform CPR on a patron. It ruled that the use of an AED should be considered a "medical care or a medical rescue service" that business owners simply have no obligation to perform.

The Court also relied in part on a recent case brought by an LA Fitness patron that suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed during a workout. An gym employee, certified in CPR, failed to render aid, believing that the man was having a stroke or seizure. In that case, the Court also found that there was no obligation to provide first aid to customers.

Abel's case is very different and in many ways more dangerous for all of Florida's students. Schools have a far greater responsibility for protecting students placed in their care. Florida's law requiring public schools to maintain AEDs and trained personnel on school grounds is simply worthless if there is no duty to utilize these life-saving devices. As a father and lawyer who represents injured children in Florida, I sincerely hope that our legislature will amend this law before another student is injured or killed.