SAN FRANCISCO --The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that large retail stores such as Target outlets are not required under state law to have defibrillators available for customers who suffer sudden cardiac arrest.
The court said that such a duty would impose an unfairly heavy burden on such stores and that there was no proof that the stores' customers were more likely than anyone else to suffer cardiac arrest.
A defibrillator requirement "would impose considerably more than a minor or minimal burden on a business establishment," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote on behalf of the court.
The panel issued its unanimous decision in San Francisco in a lawsuit filed against Minneapolis-based Target by the mother and brother of a Southern California woman, Mary Ann Verdugo, who died of cardiac arrest while shopping at a Target department store in 2008.
Paramedics were summoned to the store in Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County by a 911 call but arrived too late to revive Verdugo. The family members' lawsuit claimed that Target should have had a defibrillator on hand.
If used quickly, the devices can cause a cardiac arrest victim's heart to resume beating by giving the heart an electrical shock.
The court said precedents established by previous judicial rulings in California require businesses to take "reasonable steps" to protect their patrons from harm.
But it said reasonable steps have been defined as measures that are not overly costly or burdensome or that are needed because a particular medical risk is highly foreseeable.
The panel said defibrillators would pose an onerous burden on stores because of requirements for maintaining and testing the devices and training staff members who would use them.
In addition, "it appears that the risk of such an occurrence (of cardiac arrest) is no greater at Target than at any other location open to the public," Cantil Sakauye wrote in the ruling.
The court said it should be up to the Legislature to decide whether to mandate the devices in large retail stores.
"We believe that in this context, the Legislature is generally in the best position to examine, evaluate and resolve the public policy considerations relevant to the duty question," the chief justice wrote on behalf of the court.
The court noted that Oregon is the only state that currently requires big-box stores to have defibrillators available.
The California Legislature has passed laws, however, requiring defibrillators in fitness studios, gyms and medical facilities. Fitness studios and gyms are the only non-medical facilities where the Legislature has thus far mandated the devices, the court said.
The case came to the California Supreme Court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked the panel to decide whether California common law requires large retailers to have the devices. Common law is defined by judicial precedents rather than by legislative statutes.
The Verdugo family's lawsuit will now go back to the federal court system for further proceedings.
Target issued a statement saying, "The safety and security of our guests and team members is our top priority and we are pleased with the California Supreme Court decision."
David Eisenstein, a lawyer for the family, said he was still reviewing the decision, but said, "We're obviously disappointed in the result."
Eisenstein said it was too soon to say whether there are other issues Verdugo's relatives can pursue in the federal court case.