Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building (Phil Sears)
A celebrated former high school athlete suffered a fatal heart attack during a pickup basketball game on a Florida A&M University campus in April despite the presence of automated external defibrillators on campus.
A 15-year-old runner collapsed on Plant High School’s track field in Tampa the same month, and an AED was used to save his life. But it was not obligated.
There is one other young man whose legal case is finally getting the attention it deserves from the Florida legal system, which will bring the sad issue of unused AEDs to a head. His name is Abel Limones Jr.
Florida is what we can call a progressive state in this niche area of law that stipulates how and when AEDs should be used. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Florida was the first state in the country to enact a public access law for AEDs, back in 1997.
Florida AED laws are good in theory but not in practice.
The problem, according to many observers, including this author, is that what’s fundamentally missing from our laws is accountability. This is precisely the issue that the personal injury lawyers representing Abel’s family are interested in addressing.
Here is a brief background on AED laws in Florida and Abel’s case.
Florida Statute 768.1326 requires that any buildings owned or leased by the state of Florida for public use after 2001 have AEDs on site, available and in working order. In addition, Florida Statute 1006.165 requires all Florida public schools that are members of the Florida High School Athletic Association also have AEDs.
Florida Statute 401.2915 authorizes law enforcement to carry AEDs in their vehicles, and in addition, encourages anyone who could or should be expected to be in a position to render aid using an AED (a school employee or volunteer, for example) to someone suffering from a heart attack to have undergone proper training and be proficient in the use of an AED.
However, Abel Limones Sr. v. School District of Lee County et al, involves young Abel, who at 18 collapsed on a soccer field while school officials stood around him, within reach of a working AED. No one present attempted to use it.
Though he was resuscitated 20 minutes later by emergency personnel using their own AED, by then he had sustained major brain damage. If the available AED had been used during the first minute or two of the onset of the heart attack, he could have been revived much earlier.
The Second District Court of Appeal threw out the case based on the question of whether “reasonable” post-injury efforts required the determination that an AED should have been used. The court decided that wasn’t part of the scope of the school’s duties of care.
The Second District also found that the case should be dismissed because, though the school was required to have an AED on premises, it was not, nor by extension its staff, obligated to actually retrieve and use the AED.
The Cardiac Arrest Survival Act (Florida Statute 768.1325), the defendants argued, provides immunity from civil liability to anyone who voluntarily renders aid to a victim of a perceived medical emergency using an AED, and the school is therefore protected. Plaintiffs argued unsuccessfully that the act only provided immunity to those who attempt to render care, not to anyone who made no attempt at all.
The Florida Supreme Court could potentially pave the way for future AED negligence claims
In agreeing to hear Abel’s case, the court has accepted jurisdiction to decide whether the Second District’s decision directly conflicts with years of established Florida negligence law. The Limones family is essentially asking the court to decide whether Florida laws that require the school board to render post-injury aid, and separate Florida laws that require the placement of AEDs, together created a duty for a person, business or in this case a school, which has the ability to render aid using an AED, to actually render that aid.
If the Supreme Court rules in Limones’ favor, that could open the doors to litigation for many other cases and a chance at real justice for the families of victims who have died or nearly died from heart attacks while an AED was present but went unused.