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NY top court: No obligation for health clubs to use defibrillators

New York’s highest court ruled Thursday that fitness clubs don’t have an obligation to use defibrillators on a member having a heart attack, overturning an earlier ruling involving a Suffolk County fatality.

The Court of Appeals, in a 4-1 decision, said although state law requires health clubs to maintain Automatic External Defibrillators (AED), it doesn’t carry a duty to use the devices.

“Such a duty would engender a whole new field of tort litigation, saddling health clubs with new costs and generating uncertainty,” Judge Susan Read wrote for the majority. Because the law contains no “express statement” that the state Legislature wanted clubs to be obliged to use AED, the court can’t impose one, she added.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman dissented, saying his colleagues’ decision renders the law requiring AED at health clubs “virtually meaningless.”

The case centered on Gregory Miglino Sr., 60, of Brookhaven, who in 2007 suffered cardiac arrest on a racquetball court at a Lake Grove health club owned by Bally Total Fitness of Greater New York Inc.

According to court documents, club staff dialed 911; meanwhile, a personal trainer on staff who checked on Miglino said the fallen man had normal color and a faint pulse. Soon, a doctor and a medical student who were at the club were on the scene, along with another employee who brought an AED. Though the trainer knew how to use the device, he never employed it.

Miglino was unconscious when the ambulance arrived eight minutes after the 911 call and could not be revived. He was pronounced dead at Stony Brook University Hospital.

Miglino’s son sued Bally for negligence. The company claimed immunity -- saying it was covered by a “Good Samaritan” provision in state law that exempts businesses in such cases unless there is “gross negligence.”

Two lower courts ruled in Miglino’s favor.

In reversing the lower courts, Read countered that a duty to use an AED “would cause a dilemma for the lay health club employee whenever a volunteer medical professional is furnishing aid at the scene, as allegedly happened here.”

The Court of Appeals didn’t dismiss the case entirely. Though his chances are severely reduced by Thursday’s ruling, Miglino’s son can still pursue the lawsuit, a court spokesman said.
 

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