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Court: Fitness clubs have no obligation to use AEDs

A woman is seen leaving a Bally Sports

A woman is seen leaving a Bally Sports Club in New York. (Dec. 3, 2008) Photo Credit: AP

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

The Court of Appeals, in a 4-1 decision, said that although state law requires health clubs to maintain automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), 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 AEDs, the court can't impose one, she added.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman dissented, saying his colleagues' decision renders the law requiring AEDs at health clubs "virtually meaningless."

The case centered on Gregory Miglino Sr., 60, of Brookhaven, who in 2007 had a heart attack 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 on the grounds that Bally employees failed to meet their "common law" obligations to help a stricken club member, a court spokesman said.

A Bally lawyer, in an email, applauded the ruling and predicted the company would prevail in the lawsuit.

"This [ruling] is consistent with use of the words 'volunteer' and 'voluntarily' that appear in the statute," Brian Heermance of Manhattan wrote. "The Bally employees immediately called 911, brought the AED to Mr. Miglino's side and deferred to a doctor and medical student who were performing CPR and otherwise attending to him. Under these circumstances, I am confident that Bally met its common law obligations and will ultimately be successful in having this case resolved in its favor."

A lawyer for Gregory Miglino Jr. conceded the ruling was "a blow to" his client but said they will continue the lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Suffolk County.

"We think once all the facts are on the table, they will show that Bally's failed to meet its common-law duties," Scott Charnas said.

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