Automated defibrillators not required in big-box stores, justices rule

Large stores in California need not keep automated external defibrillators for customers who suffer heart attacks, the California Supreme Court decided.

In a unanimous ruling Monday, the state’s highest court said California law requires only that fitness centers have such potentially life-saving devices and encourages most public buildings to keep them.

Foundations for heart attack victims had urged the court to require big-box stores to have the devices, but the business community opposed any such mandate.

Monday’s ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the family of Mary Ann Verdugo, 49, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 2008 while shopping at a Target store in Pico Rivera. Paramedics were summoned, but by the time they reached Verdugo, she could not be revived.


Verdugo’s family argued that Target should have had a defibrillator, an electronic device that gives an electrical shock to the heart. According to the American Heart Assn., a victim’s chance of survival drops 7% to 10% for each minute that passes without defibrillation.

David Eisenstein, who represents the Verdugo family, said paramedics did not reach the victim for 16 minutes. He argued that large and cavernous big-box stores should have defibrillators because of the time it takes paramedics to reach victims. He said Target sells the devices online, “and it would seem only to make sense to have one in their store.”

“No one is immune” from a heart attack, Eisenstein said. “It happens, and it is going to happen again in California. It is only a matter of time that is going to happen again in a Target store.”

But Deborah J. LaFetra, a lawyer with the pro-business Pacific Legal Foundation, praised the ruling for recognizing that “businesses cannot be responsible for every medical emergency that happens to occur on their premises.”

“The court here recognized that in no possible sense was it Target’s fault that one of its shoppers suffered a fatal heart attack on the premises,” LaFetra said.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the court, noted in the ruling that buying and maintaining the equipment would “impose considerably more than a minor or minimal burden on a business establishment.”

She wrote there was no evidence that “the risk of death from sudden cardiac arrest in a big-box store is any greater than the risk of death” at other locations.

A federal judge had dismissed the lawsuit against Target, and Verdugo appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A 9th Circuit panel, weighing whether to revive the suit, asked the California Supreme Court whether state law imposed a duty on large retailers to have defibrillators.


The 9th Circuit will decide whether the Verdugo lawsuit must be dismissed in light of Monday’s ruling.

Evan Lapiska, a Target spokesman, said the company was pleased with the decision. “The safety … of our guests and team members is our top priority,” he said.

Twitter: @mauradolan