Tennessee Supreme Court Rules AED Seller Had No Duty to Church or Victim

December 22, 2016

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the seller of an automated external defibrillator (AED) is not liable either to a woman whose husband died after collapsing at a church fitness center or to the church that purchased the AED.

Sandra L. Wallis’s husband collapsed after participating in a cycling class at a fitness center owned by Brainerd Baptist Church (Church) in Hamilton County.  The class instructor and others present at the fitness center attended to Mr. Wallis immediately after he collapsed, and called 911, but did not use the onsite AED because they believed the man was suffering a seizure not a heart attack. 

Mr. Wallis later died, and Mrs. Wallis sued the Church and the seller of the AED, ExtendLife, Inc. (ExtendLife), claiming negligence, alleging the fitness facility employees were not properly trained, they failed to use the AED, and that ExtendLife had failed to fulfill several contractual obligations to the Church, including ensuring the Church complied with all relevant statutes and trained personnel at the fitness center.  Mrs. Wallis alleged that ExtendLife’s breaches of contract caused her husband’s death. 

The Church also filed a third-party complaint against ExtendLife, alleging that if Mrs. Wallis recovered a judgment against it for failing to comply with relevant AED statutes, ExtendLife should be held responsible for the judgment.

ExtendLife asked the trial court to grant it summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to Mr. Wallis, that it had fulfilled its contractual obligations to the Church, and that, even if it had not, Mr. Wallis was not entitled to recover under the contract because he was neither a party to the contract nor an intended beneficiary of it. The trial court denied ExtendLife’s motion but granted it permission to seek an interlocutory appeal.  The Court of Appeals denied ExtendLife’s application for an interlocutory appeal, but the Tennessee Supreme Court granted the application.

After analyzing statutes and common law relevant to AEDs, the obligations of businesses to aid and assist patrons, and contract law relating to third-party beneficiaries, the Court held that Mr. Wallis was not a third-party beneficiary to the contract between the Church and ExtendLife because at the time of contracting, the Church had no statutory or common law duty to Mr. Wallis to acquire or use an AED. 

The Court explained: “[W]hile Tennessee statutes encourage entities to acquire AEDs and make them available for use, these statutes do not impose any affirmative or mandatory duty on businesses to do so, nor do these statutes mandate use of AEDs that are acquired.”  Because the Church had no duty to acquire or use the AED it purchased from ExtendLife, the Church’s contract with ExtendLife was not intended to fulfill a duty the Church owed to Mr. Wallis.  Therefore, Mr. Wallis was not a third-party beneficiary to the contract. 

The Supreme Court also granted summary judgment to ExtendLife on the third-party complaint, explaining that because the Church neither owed nor violated any statutory duty to Mr. Wallis, the Church’s assertion that ExtendLife should be responsible for any judgment against it for statutory noncompliance was without merit. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for entry of summary judgment in favor of ExtendLife against Mrs. Wallis and the Church and for any other necessary proceedings.

Read the unanimous opinion in Sandra L. Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church, et al., authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark.