Large retailers such as Target have no legal obligation to keep defibrillators on hand for customers stricken by heart attacks, the California Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a unanimous decision, the state's high court sided with Target and a host of business organizations that argued such a requirement places an unprecedented and costly burden on retailers.
The justices made it clear the Legislature can address the issue by adopting specific regulations forcing the retail industry to maintain defibrillators for customers.
The decision came as a result of a lawsuit brought on behalf of a Southern California family suing Target after a woman collapsed in the jewelry department in 2008 and died before paramedics arrived.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the issue to the California Supreme Court two years ago, finding that state law was unclear on whether large retailers are required to provide defibrillators.
The Supreme Court concluded it is up to the Legislature, not the courts, to put any such legal requirement in place. The justices noted that just one state, Oregon, has a legal rule forcing retailers to have the devices in their stores.
"It is appropriate to leave to the Legislature the policy decision about whether a business entity should be required to acquire and make available (a defibrillator) for the protection of its patrons," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote.
David Eisenstein, the lawyer for the family suing Target, expressed disappointment with the outcome, although he was hopeful the Legislature would take up the court's invitation to require defibrillators in big-box retailers.
All sides had agreed smaller businesses, such as dry cleaners or restaurants, could not absorb such a strict regulation.
"There is a solution," Eisenstein said. "The Legislature still has the power to act ... there is a green light (from the court) to do so."
The debate over requiring defibrillators has been expanding across the county, where all states and the federal government require the lifesaving equipment in certain locations, such as airports, schools and amusement parks.
But big businesses have opposed the rule for retailers, arguing it could expose them to further liability and open the door to requirements for other medical services for customers.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the California Retailers Association sided with Target in the state Supreme Court. Deborah LaFetra, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which backed the businesses, praised the ruling.
"The court's decision properly recognizes that businesses cannot be responsible for every medical emergency that happens on their premises," she said.
Groups aligned with heart safety support, including the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, backed the family's arguments. The American Heart Association has reported defibrillators can be crucial in saving lives if used quickly after heart attacks.
Monday's ruling is likely to unravel the lawsuit against Target, brought by the family of 49-year-old Mary Ann Verdugo, who died in 2008 inside a store. The family's supporters argued that California law does have first-aid requirements, even if those do not spell out an obligation to include defibrillators.
Rosemary Verdugo, the woman's mother, told The Associated Press earlier this year the lawsuit was "not only about money" but to help others facing a similar emergency.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz