Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Employer Had No Duty to Use AED to Assist Employee in Need of Medical Care

January 31, 2019

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that an employer is not liable for workers’ compensation benefits for not using an available automated external defibrillator (AED) to assist an employee who suffered a non-work related medical emergency. An AED is a medical device that delivers an electric shock to the heart to restore a normal heart rhythm after the heart suddenly stops beating or starts beating irregularly. Tennessee has statutes that encourage businesses to acquire AEDs and provide immunity from civil liability under certain conditions.

Katherine D. Chaney sued her employer, Team Technologies, Inc., for workers’ compensation benefits in the Hamblen County Circuit Court. Chaney had collapsed at work, presumably due to a heart problem unrelated to her employment. Emergency medical responders were called to provide medical care. Her employer had an AED, but did not use it to assist Chaney. Although the medical responders were able to revive Chaney, she suffered a permanent brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen to her brain. Team Technologies asked the trial court to dismiss Chaney’s claim, mainly asserting that her injury did not arise out of her employment and that Team Technologies was not required to use its AED. Under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law, Chaney had to show that her injury arose out of and in the course of her employment. Chaney argued that her injury arose out of her employment because her injury was caused by Team Technologies’ failure to use its AED under the emergency rule. Under this rule, an employer can be liable for workers’ compensation benefits for an employee’s non-work related injury if the employer fails to provide medical assistance to an employee in urgent need of medical care. Chaney argued that under this rule, her employer was required to use the AED.  

The trial courtdenied Team Technologies’ request to dismiss the case. The Supreme Court granted Team Technologies’ request for an interlocutory appeal to decide whether an employer can be liable for workers’ compensation benefits when it has acquired an AED but does not use it to assist an employee in need of emergency care.

After reviewing applicable statutes and case law in Tennessee and other jurisdictions, the Supreme Court restated the emergency rule to clarify that an employer can be liable for workers’ compensation benefits when the employer fails to provide reasonable (not any and all) medical assistance to an employee who becomes helpless at work because of illness or other cause not related to the job; the employee needs medical assistance to prevent further injury; the employer knows of the employee’s helplessness; and the employer can provide reasonable medical assistance but does not do so.

The Supreme Court applied this restated rule and held that Chaney’s claim did not arise out of her employment with Team Technologies. First, the Supreme Court ruled that Team Technologies provided reasonable medical assistance to Chaney by summoning medical responders. Second, the Supreme Court held that under Tennessee statutes and case law, Team Technologies had no obligation to use its AED to assist Chaney. The goal of Tennessee’s AED statutes is to make AEDs more available, but these statutes do not require businesses to acquire or use AEDs. In a previous case involving the use of an AED, the Supreme Court ruled that a business that acquires an AED does not have to use it to assist a patron with a medical emergency. This ruling is consistent with the law in other states and the intent of Tennessee’s AED statutes. This same reasoning applies to employers who are encouraged to acquire AEDs, but are not liable to employees for not using the AEDs. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, reversed the trial court and sent the case back to the trial court for dismissal.

Oral arguments for this case were heard as part of the Court’s S.C.A.L.E.S. (Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students) project at Chattanooga State Community College. To read the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court in Katherine D. Chaney v. Team Technologies, Inc., authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of tncourts.gov.