The Florida Supreme Court has ruled the family of a former Lee County Schools teen athlete should be allowed to sue the school for failure to use an automated external defibrillator (AED) during a soccer game in which he collapsed.
In a split 5-2 ruling in Limones v. Lee County School District, the court determined the school district owed a reasonable duty of care to the student, specifically to provide aid when he collapsed during the 2008 game. Whether officials with the school met that duty or not is a decision best left to the jury, the court ruled.
The case is being closely-watched because it could have a significant impact on the kinds of responsibilities owed by schools to students in providing medical care. A trial court decision in plaintiff’s favor could expand school liability in instances where teachers, coaches, principles, bus drivers and aides fail to secure appropriate medical care for all students – not just student athletes.
According to court records, the 15-year-old East Lee County High School student was playing against Riverdale High School, the host school, both of which belong to Lee County. During the game, he suffered a collision with another player, and as a result, collapsed.
When the student did not get up, the coach immediately raced onto the field to check on the player. Initially, the teen tried to talk to his coach, but within three minutes of collapse, the student lost consciousness and appeared to stop breathing. His coach was unable to detect a pulse. An administrator for the host school called 911. Two parents in the stand were nurses, and they joined the coach on the field. One began CPR on the teen.
The coach was certified in the use of and AED, which the school had at the other end of the field. These devices help to jump-start the heart. However, one was never brought to the scene to help assist reviving the teen.
When the fire department arrived several minutes later, they tried revive the teen using a semi-automatic AED kept aboard the truck, but that didn’t work. A few minutes after that, when EMS arrived, they brought a fully-automatic AED and they also gave the teen drugs to get his heart pumping again.
This did work. But it had been 26 minutes since his collapse. The lack of oxygen he endured left him permanently and severely brain damaged. He remains today in a vegetative state, which doctors say he will be in for the rest of his life,. This once vibrant, athletic teen boy will now require around-the-clock care for as long as he lives.
An expert witness for plaintiff testified the teen suffered a previously undiagnosed heart condition. The doctor theorized that if the shocks from the AED had been given sooner, oxygen would have been restored more quickly to his brain, and he would not have suffered so severe an injury.
The teen’s parents have sued the school, asserting it breached the standard of care as imposed by F.S. 1006.165 when it failed to apply an AED immediately after the teen collapsed. This is the law that requires all schools to keep an AED on site, train its personnel in how to use it and register the location of it.
Trial court granted summary judgment for the school, and parents appealed. On appeal, the Second District recognized the school owed a duty of care, but focused solely on whether that duty should have included diagnosing the necessity of and/or using an AED. In finding the school owed no duty, the appellate court relied on the case of L.A. Fitness International v. Mayer, before the Fla. 4th DCA. In that case, the question was whether a business owner owed a duty to a business invitee to use an AED (in this case, during a workout). The court ruled no such duty existed.
However, the Florida Supreme Court noted the duties in each case were vastly different because schools owe a special relationship to students. A school employee’s duty to supervise students requires the employees to act with reasonable care under the circumstances.
Whether reasonable care was used here is a matter for a jury to decide.
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Limones v. Lee County School District, April 2, 2015, Florida Supreme Court
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