Posted on 05/25/2022
LA Fitness

The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled two state laws establish fitness centers can be obligated to use an automated external defibrillator if a patron is experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, and failure to do so can be considered willful and wanton misconduct.

Justice Michael Burke wrote the 6-0 opinion issued May 19; Justice Robert Carter took no part in the decision.

According to Burke, the relevant statutes are the Physical Fitness Medical Emergency Preparedness Act and the AED Act, both from 2012. The underlying lawsuit began when Leo Dawkins filed a personal injury lawsuit against Fitness International after staff at the L.A. Fitness gym in Oswego failed to use an AED on his wife, Dollett Smith Dawkins. Dollett Dawkins suffered cardiac arrest and now has permanent brain damage, according to court documents.

A Will County judge dismissed Dawkins’ multiple complaints with prejudice. He then appealed only the willful and wanton negligence counts from his third amended complaint, which said Dollett Dawkins “collapsed, stopped breathing and lost her pulse and circulation” at the gym on Nov. 18, 2012. 

Dawkins alleged other patrons attempted to resuscitate his wife and shouted to staff for help. According to the complaint, there was an AED on site at the time, as welll as employees trained in its use on duty, and an emergency response plan on file. But no one attempted to use the machine on Dawkins' wife according to court documents.

Before an appeals panel, Fitness International argued the state laws create liability only for misuse of an AED, not for a failure to deploy them. The appeals panel disagreed, ruling in favor of Dawkins and leading to the appeal before the Supreme Court. 

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association filed a brief in support of Dawkins.

“We agree with the appellate court that, by their plain terms, neither of these statutes immunizes a defendant from liability arising from the failure to use an AED on an injured person, provided that such failure was willful and wanton,” Burke wrote. “A defendant covered by the statutes may not be found liable for civil damages for failure to use or not use an AED, except for willful or wanton misconduct. The plain and unambiguous meaning of this phrase is that civil liability may attach to willful and wanton failures to use an AED. In other words, a right of action does exist for willful and wanton misconduct in connection with the non-use of an AED.”

The Supreme Court said the Facility Preparedness Act indicates there is no liability for basic negligence but specifically references willful and wanton non-use. Under the company’s reading of that law, Burke wrote, “any facility desiring maximum protection of its interests would instruct its staff to never use an AED. Clearly, the construction offered by Fitness would lead to an absurd result and would be just the opposite of the legislative intent in our view.”

Burke said the justices agreed lawmakers didn’t intend to mandate use of an AED in all medical emergencies, in all exercise facilities. But the laws require fitness centers to have an AED installed and to require trained employees to assess if a patron is experiencing a cardiac arrest, and if using the AED would be appropriate.

“Fitness essentially argues that an employee trained to use an AED cannot be expected to use it in an emergency,” Burke wrote. “This would seem to be an argument better directed to the trier of fact as to whether Fitness’ conduct was in fact willful and wanton. We do note, however, that the statute does require that Fitness always have a trained AED operator on duty when it is open to the public. Moreover, there is no indication from the pleadings other than that AEDs are relatively simple to operate, that it ‘takes less than one minute to apply AED treatment to a person,’ and that the machine itself prompts and advises.”

Burke further wrote the panel rejected the company’s references to cases from other states and said its reading of the laws runs counter to their express purposes: protecting fitness center patrons by encouraging proper AED use.

The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court ruling, reversed the circuit court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Dawkins was represented in the case by attorney David C. Wise, of the firm of Wise Morrissey, of Chicago, and attorney Michael T. Reagan, of Ottawa.

LA Fitness was represented by attorney James M. Rozak, of the firm of Goldberg Segalla, of Chicago. 

SOURCE: Cook County Record