Tennessee: No Compensable Claim Where Employer Failed to Use On-Site Defibrillator

The Supreme Court of Tennessee, reversing a decision of a state trial court, held that an employer who failed to use an automated external defibrillator (AED) to assist an employee who suffered a non-work related medical emergency, cannot be liable for workers’ compensation benefits [Chaney v. Team Techs., 2019 Tenn. LEXIS 20 (Jan. 31, 2019)]. The Court acknowledged that under the state’s emergency doctrine, an employer could sometimes be liable for benefits if it failed to render reasonable medical aid to an employee who had become helpless at work, but found that the doctrine could not be extended to require an employer to utilize an AED, particularly since the employer here had summoned emergency medical responders.

Background

The employee collapsed at work because of a medical condition unrelated to her employment. The employee’s heart stopped beating, and she could no longer breathe. The employer’s personnel called for emergency assistance, but did not utilize an AED that it had acquired for emergencies like the one in the instant case. Medical responders arrived at the scene and revived the employee, but she suffered permanent brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation.

Tennessee’s Emergency Rule

The employee contended that under under the emergency rule (see Vanderbilt University v. Russell, 556 S.W.2d 230 (Tenn. 1997) (hereinafter “Russell”), the employer had a duty to provide her with medical assistance, which included using an acquired AED. The employer contended the employee’s injuries did not arise out of and in the course of the employment. The trial court found that the employee had pleaded sufficient facts to set forth a prima facie case that her injury arose out of and in the course of employment and the employer appealed.

Did Injury Arise Out of the Employment?

The Court noted that there was no dispute that the employee’s injury occurred in the course of her employment; she collapsed while speaking with a supervisor at work. At issue was whether the facts the employee alleged in her complaint, if taken as true, were sufficient to establish that her injury arose out of her employment.

Applying the Emergency Rule

The Court stressed that under the rule in Russell. when an employee becomes helpless at work because of illness or other cause unrelated to her employment, needs medical assistance to prevent further injury, and the employer can make such medical assistance available but does not do so, then any disability caused by this failure of the employer is considered to have “arisen out of and in the course of employment.”

That said, the Court continued that the rule should not be construed so broadly as to require employers to provide any and all medical assistance to a helpless employee. Instead, a reasonableness standard must be read into this rule.

The Court noted that under Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church, 509 S.W.3d 886 (Tenn. 2016), it had earlier held that a business has neither a statutory nor a common law duty to use an acquired AED to assist a patron. In Wallis, a patron at a fitness facility collapsed and died following a fitness class. The patron’s surviving spouse sued the facility’s owner and operator, alleging negligent failure to use an onsite AED, to train personnel to use the AED, and to comply with applicable state statutes. The Court added that use of the AED was permitted only by persons who had received appropriate training. It was one thing to require reasonable assistance be rendered to a helpless employee. It was quite a different thing to require the specific use of the AED. Here, the employer provided reasonable medical assistance when it called for emergency assistance.

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