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Friday, December 23, 2016

New Tennessee Supreme Court Opinion: Seller of Automated External Defibrillator Granted Summary Judgment on Appeal

The Tennessee Supreme Court just issued its opinion in Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church, No. E2015-01827-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Dec. 22, 2016).  The summary from the slip opinion states as follows:
The plaintiff‟s husband collapsed and died after participating in a cycling class at a fitness and recreation facility owned and operated by the church. Although the cycling class instructor and others present at the fitness facility attended the plaintiff's husband and called 911 soon after his collapse, they did not utilize the automated external defibrillator (“AED”) on site at the facility. The plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against the church, alleging, among other things, that the church had negligently failed to utilize the onsite AED, to train facility personnel on the proper use of the AED, and to comply with applicable state statutes. The church denied negligence and subsequently filed a third-party complaint against the company that sold it the AED, asserting that the seller had contractually agreed to provide a physician oversight program, which, among other things, included oversight of the church's compliance with federal, state, and local regulations. The church alleged that, should the plaintiff recover a judgment against it for failing to comply with statutes, the seller should be solely responsible for the judgment. The plaintiff then filed a second amended complaint naming the seller as a defendant and alleging, as relevant to this interlocutory appeal, that: (1) the seller had negligently breached a duty it owed to her husband and others using the fitness facility to properly maintain the AEDs, to ensure that they were accessible, and to ensure that the church's employees had the knowledge, training, and ability to operate the AEDs; (2) the seller had breached its contract with the church; (3) her husband was a third-party beneficiary of the contract; and (4) the seller's negligence and breaches of contract caused her husband's death, entitling her to recover against the seller on her wrongful death and loss of consortium claims.

The seller moved for summary judgment against the plaintiff and the church, arguing that: (1) it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff or her husband; (2) the church had no common law or statutory duty to acquire or use an AED; (3) neither the plaintiff nor her husband were third-party beneficiaries of the seller's contract with the church; (4) the undisputed facts established that the seller had not breached its contract with the church; and (5) the undisputed facts failed to establish that any of the alleged breaches of contract caused the plaintiff‟s husband's death. The trial court denied the seller's motion for summary judgment, concluding that disputes of material fact remained, but it granted the seller permission to seek an interlocutory appeal. The Court of Appeals denied the seller's application for an interlocutory appeal, but this Court granted the seller permission to appeal pursuant to Rule 11 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. We conclude that the seller did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff's husband or other users of the fitness facility independent of its contract with the church and that the church had no statutory or common law duty to acquire or use the AED it purchased from the seller, and as a result, the plaintiff's husband was not a third-party beneficiary of the church's contract with the seller. For these reasons, the seller is entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's second amended complaint and the church's third-party complaint. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for entry of summary judgment in favor of the seller on all claims and for any other necessary and appropriate proceedings consistent with this decision.

NOTE: In addition to the discussion on the law surrounding the seller of an AED's liability in Tennessee, this opinion sheds further light on the post-Rye summary judgment standard in our state, which makes it a must-read for that fact alone.

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