by By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | February 01, 2009

These days, you cannot walk through an airport without seeing automated external defibrillators positioned in key locations along the corridors. Similarly, many convention centers, large theaters and arenas are incorporating AEDs in an attempt to abate the immediate life-threatening arrhythmias of heart attacks. But should just any old Joe pull one off the wall to help someone?

The new AED machinery is portrayed as "foolproof" -- as far as it can go. When turned on, the device instructs the user how to apply the electric pads to the patient and what to do once they are attached. The pads allow the AED to determine if the patient is in a rhythm that would benefit from the shock, as opposed to suffering from some other malady for which the AED would not be appropriate. Once the machine has made that determination, it can deliver the required shock level -- and perhaps save a life in the process.

One of the issues that has arisen surrounding AEDs is what liability would arise if, in good faith, one attempted to use the machine -- with or without success.

In most states, the use of an AED by a person acting in good faith would be protected under so-called Good Samaritan laws. These statutes basically protect the volunteer, who is not medically trained, from liability for harm or death to the individual he or she is attempting to help, regardless of whether the assistance is deemed to be improper or inadequate.

There are, of course, limitations to these laws. In some states, Good Samaritan statutes specifically cover the use of an AED by an untrained responder. Overall, an AED would create little liability if it has been properly maintained by the facility and if it is used in a correct manner.

Meeting professionals should find out if the defibrillators on the premises they are booking are automated ones and ask about the service and maintenance of the equipment. Such inquiries show due diligence on the planner's part if any need or question should arise and will help shield the host organization from liability under a Good Samaritan law.
However, if yours is a particularly large gathering, be sure to have medical personnel on hand for emergencies.

A good compilation of state laws dealing with cardiac arrest and defibrillators can be found at the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures ( Also, a certification program is available for facilities in the meetings and conventions industry through an organization called CardioReady (

Rushing to Aid

While many feel a humanitarian need to help someone in a medical emergency, the courts have held that there is not necessarily an obligation to act when you see someone in distress. For example, in a case that questioned whether a restaurant had a duty to perform first aid on a choking victim, the courts determined that the only duty required was to issue an immediate call for someone to come and provide first aid.

In this instance, two people were dining at the restaurant when one began choking. Her companion called out for assistance but no one at the restaurant came forward to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Paramedics were called, but were unable to resuscitate the woman and she subsequently died. In a lawsuit against the restaurant, the court held that while the establishment had a duty to help the patron, that duty was limited to summoning medical assistance. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at