Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on duty to have and use an AED defines how statutes are to be interpreted and when liability can attach and cannot attach to a statute.

The law that creates a safe harbor from civil liability for being a Good Samaritan does not create a duty to act. There still is no legal requirement to act as a Good Samaritan, however, if you do, you cannot be sued.

Atcovitz v. Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc, 571 Pa. 580; 812 A.2d 1218; 2002 Pa. LEXIS 2832

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Jerry Atcovitz and Roslyn Atcovitz

Defendant: Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc, Jkst, Inc. and Gulph Mills/Jkst Tennis Club, Inc., Lafayette Ambulance Rescue Squad I

Plaintiff Claims: whether a tennis club owes a duty of care to its members to acquire and maintain an automated external defibrillator, hereinafter “AED,” on its premises for emergency use

Defendant Defenses: No duty

Holding: for the defendant Tennis Club

Year: 2002

The plaintiff was playing tennis at the defendant tennis club. While playing he suffered a stroke which was secondary to a heart attack. Within one minute tennis club, members started CPR on the plaintiff and ten minutes later an ambulance arrived. The ambulance administered defibrillation and transported the plaintiff to the hospital.

The plaintiff had a history of heart problems for twenty years, including a previous heart attack and bypass surgery. The tennis club did not know of the plaintiff’s medical history.

The heart attack and stroke left the defendant unable to concentrate or think, is unable to walk or get out of bed and requires assistance in all aspects of his life.

The plaintiff and his wife sued the defendant tennis club for not having an AED and not using it: “…had [Gulph Mills] possessed an AED device and used it on [Atcovitz] promptly, his injuries would have been significantly less and; therefore, that [Gulph Mills] is liable to him for damages.”

The plaintiff’s moved for summary judgment to prevent the defendant from asserting the defenses. The defendant then cross filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted. The case was appealed and the Pennsylvania Appellate court, called the Superior Court, reversed. The case was then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Between the incident that plaintiff suffered and the decision by the trial court to dismiss the Pennsylvania legislature passed an AED Good Samaritan Act. The Appellate court based some of the reasoning for its decision on the AED Good Samaritan Act the legislature passed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court started out by defining the specific issues it would look at as well as the procedural definitions it must follow. This provides a clear look at how Pennsylvania courts make decisions.

The Supreme Court first reviewed the standard of review the court must use. “Our standard of review is clear: the trial court’s order will be reversed only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or clearly abused its discretion.”

The court then reviewed under Pennsylvania law the requirements for granting a motion for summary judgment.

Summary judgment is appropriate only in those cases where the record clearly demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The reviewing court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, resolving all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party.   When the facts are so clear that reasonable minds cannot differ, a trial court may properly enter summary judgment.

The court then defined the elements necessary to successfully plead a negligence claim under Pennsylvania.

The elements necessary to plead an action in negligence are: (1) the existence of a duty or obligation recognized by law, requiring the actor to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) a failure on the part of the defendant to conform to that duty, or a breach thereof; (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach and the resulting injury; and (4) actual loss or damage suffered by the complainant.

The court then further defined the element of duty in a negligence case. “A duty, in negligence cases, may be defined as an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.

This definition was supported by the definition of duty in a legal treatise, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts. This is the book referenced by courts in defining the law.

These are shifting sands, and no fit foundation. There is a duty if the court says there is a duty; the law, like the Constitution, is what we make it. Duty is only a word with which we state our conclusion that there is or is not to be liability; it necessarily begs the essential question. When we find a duty, breach and damage, everything has been said. The word serves a useful purpose in directing attention to the obligation to be imposed upon the defendant, rather than the causal sequence of events; beyond that it serves none. In the decision whether or not there is a duty, many factors interplay: The hand of history, our ideas of morals and justice, the convenience of administration of the rule, and our social ideas as to where the loss should fall. In the end, the court will decide whether there is a duty on the basis of the mores of the community, “always keeping in mind the fact that we endeavor to make a rule in each case that will be practical and in keeping with the general understanding of mankind.”

The bad news issue the law changes as everything else in the US changes, Public policy and public opinion are just some of the factors that affect the law. The good news is the law attempts to stay current with the changing issues facing the law. Albeit a lot slower than most might wish, but it does change. “Thus, the legal concept of duty is necessarily rooted in often amorphous public policy considerations, which may include our perception of history, morals, justice, and society.”

The care as defined by a legal duty was further broken down by the court.

In Althaus, this Court enunciated several discrete factors, derived from the aforementioned principles, that our courts are to balance  [HN6] in determining whether a common law duty of care exists: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor’s conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public interest in the proposed solution.

Thus the court takes in other issues in looking at determining how a case is to be decided, however, the law and prior decisions come first. Making a change requires major commitment by the courts to go down a different path and dismiss the prior cases leading down the old path. Consequently, you rarely see these changes, what you do see is slight modifications of the direction the path is taking.

Major changes are left to the legislature to respond more quickly to the issues facing the public. In this case, the court looked at the legislatures’ intent in creating an AED Good Samaritan Act.

…the overall public interest in the proposed solution. The Legislature’s enactments and the ensuing regulations reveal that acquisition, maintenance, and use of an AED, along with AED training requirements, are highly regulated. Where our lawmakers have so thoroughly considered the statewide application and implications of a subject, this Court must refrain from imposing additional requirements upon that legislation.

The appellate court used the newly enacted AED Good Samaritan Act to hold the defendant liable. The Supreme Court looked at the act differently in relation to this decision. The Supreme Court saw the act as proof that the legislature intended the issues surrounding AEDs was highly regulated. “Rather, they are relevant to demonstrate that the acquisition, maintenance, and use of an AED, along with AED training requirements, are highly regulated.”

When reviewing an act, the information within the law enacted by the legislature is the only information that can be reviewed. Anything not included in the act is therefore excluded from the analysis. “We must infer that,  [HN11] under the doctrine of expressio unius est exclusio alterius, the inclusion of a specific matter in a statute implies the exclusion of other matters.

The AED Act provides immunity for trained AED users and immunity for untrained users who use an AED in good faith.

The AED Good Samaritan Act, which was adopted two years after Atcovitz sustained his injuries, provides civil immunity for trained users of AEDs and requires that  [HN12] “expected users shall complete training in the use of an AED. . . .” As an exception to that general rule, the AED Good Samaritan Act also provides civil immunity to untrained individuals who, in good faith, use an AED in an emergency as an ordinary, reasonably prudent individual would do under the same or similar circumstances. Significantly, the AED Good Samaritan Act defines “good faith” as including “a reasonable opinion that the immediacy of the situation is such that the use of an AED should not be postponed until emergency medical services personnel arrive or the person is hospitalized.”

The act, consequently, only creates a safe harbor for using an AED. It does not create liability for someone who does not use an AED.

Thus, the AED Good Samaritan Act merely creates an exception for imposing liability on an untrained individual who uses an AED in limited emergency situations; it does not authorize its use by any such individual.

In addition, it does not indicate that the Legislature aimed to dispense with the regulations governing the training and use of AEDs. Simply, the existence of a civil immunity provision for Good Samaritans who use an AED in an emergency situation cannot impose a duty on a business establishment to ac-quire, maintain, and use such a device on its premises.

The act cannot, then be used to create liability for not using an AED; it only removes liability for someone who does use an AED.

Neither the EMS Act nor the AED Good Samaritan Act imposed a duty upon Gulph Mills to acquire, maintain, and use an AED. Appellees do not cite any other case, statute, or regulation that would have imposed such a duty on Gulph Mills at the time of Atcovitz’s injuries in January 1996. Because Gulph Mills did not owe a duty to carry an AED, Appellees could not have established a prima facie claim of negligence.

There was a dissenting opinion, in this case. The dissent agreed with the majority opinion; it disagreed on how broad the decision was and thought several of the issues should be sent back for review by the trial court.

So Now What?

First understand there is a difference between what is moral, ethical and legal. My job is not to help you decide those issues. My job is to help you understand the law when you are faced with the issues. You can be morally and ethically right and be sued and lose. You can have no morals or ethics and be sued and lose. How you balance those aspects of your life, how you approach the issues you face in your life is not the subject of these articles. How the law applies to the facts set forth in the specific cases may affect your choices is what the article is about.

The good news is the decision prevents lawsuits for not having an AED or using an AED in Pennsylvania.

This case also defines how it would look at the reverse. If the law restricted the use of a device, the application of the law would not only allow for civil liability but possibly criminal liability also.

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