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Wallis v. Brainerd Baptist Church

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 22, 2016


          Session Date: September 8, 2016

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for Hamilton County No. 12C765 L. Marie Williams, Judge

         The plaintiffs 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 plaintiffs 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 plaintiffs 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 plaintiffs 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.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Trial Court Reversed and Case Remanded

          Daniel M. Stefaniuk and James H. Payne, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, ExtendLife, Inc.

          David E. Harrison and Thomas M. Gautreaux, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee, Sandra L. Wallis.

          Alaric A. Henry, Elizabeth L. Epps, and Amanda B. Dunn, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Brainerd Baptist Church and David Manuel Rojas.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural History

         The defendant, Brainerd Baptist Church (the "Church"), owns and operates a fitness and recreation facility, Brainerd Crossroads or BX ("BX"), in Hamilton County, Tennessee. On August 21, 2008, the Church purchased four (4) automated external defibrillators (collectively "AEDs")[1] from ExtendLife, Inc. ("ExtendLife"). At least one of these AEDs was placed at BX. The terms of the Church's contract with ExtendLife were described in an August 11, 2008 email from a sales employee for ExtendLife to an associate pastor of the Church, who also then served as director of BX. By an August 20, 2008 email from the BX director to ExtendLife's sales employee, the Church accepted and confirmed the contract terms. And, in an August 21, 2008 email, ExtendLife's sales employee acknowledged the Church's acceptance of the contract terms, advised that the order would be processed that same morning, and indicated that the AEDs would be delivered in a couple of business days.

         The order was, in fact, processed by invoice number 809001, dated August 21, 2008, and this invoice, consistent with the email exchange, reflected that the Church had purchased four AEDs and also had purchased, at a cost of $150 per AED, what was referred to as "Annual Physician Oversight Program Management." Although the invoice included no further description of this program, the August 11, 2008 email from ExtendLife's sales employee to the BX director included the following outline of the services provided by the Physician Oversight Program Management System:

1. Physician's prescription for purchase of AED (standing order).
2. Medical oversight and written emergency plan, as required by state law.
3. Evaluation of employee/responder recertification schedules.
4. Monitors expiration of AED batteries and electrode pads.
5. Monitors scheduled AED maintenance checks.
6. Notifications for the expiration dates of responder certifications, batteries, and electrode pads.
7. Local EMS registration AED locations.
8. Post event review and analysis of ECG data by a physician and reports filed with appropriate government agencies.
9. 24-hour customer support.
10. Post-event physician consultation, if requested.
11. Physician phone consultation regarding any medically-specific aspect of your program.

         The August 21, 2008 invoice, like the August 11, 2008 email, also reflected that ExtendLife would provide the Church with four complimentary training classes for up to twenty participants per class, and each participant completing a training class would receive CPR, AED, and Emergency Oxygen Administration certifications. Two of these complimentary training classes were held in March 2009, and the third was held in April 2009. Seventeen persons attended these classes. The fourth class was scheduled for May 2009, but only one person signed up for this class and elected not to take it alone, so this final complimentary class was canceled. The Church did not order additional training services from ExtendLife and instead hired Mr. Chris Fryar, a Church member and fire department captain, to provide AED training to BX personnel.

         In January 2011, more than two years after the Church purchased the AEDs from ExtendLife, the plaintiff, Sandra Wallis, and her deceased husband, Jerry Wallis, became members of BX. On August 20, 2011, Mr. Wallis participated in an indoor cycling class at BX. After exiting the cycling room, Mr. Wallis collapsed. As soon as she was told of his collapse, the cycling class instructor, Kelly Casey, went immediately to his location. Ms. Casey had been trained by Mr. Fryar and had American Heart Association AED training and certification and CPR certification.[2]

         When Ms. Casey arrived, she observed Mr. Wallis lying on the floor on his side, his body rigid, his eyes open, and his head lifted off the floor. Ms. Casey heard him breathing and saw his chest rising and falling, and after checking his wrist, she determined that he had a pulse. Based on Mr. Wallis's physical condition-breathing, eyes open, head lifted off the floor, and body rigid-Ms. Casey believed Mr. Wallis was having a seizure, not a coronary event, and she placed towels beneath his head for support. She decided to wet more towels to cool Mr. Wallis, and as she was heading to the water fountain across the room, she encountered two men, both off-duty police personnel, who had just finished a meeting at BX. One of the men asked if BX had an AED, and if so, where it was located. Ms. Casey walked him to the nearest AED, located outside the aerobics room, and after they retrieved it, she returned with him to Mr. Wallis's location.[3] The man remained with Mr. Wallis while she continued to the water fountain across the room to wet the towels, and the two men assumed control of Mr. Wallis's care. When Ms. Casey returned to Mr. Wallis's location approximately forty-five seconds later, one of the men asked for someone to go outside, await the ambulance, and direct the paramedics to Mr. Wallis's location, so Ms. Casey did so. Soon thereafter, paramedics arrived, assumed responsibility for Mr. Wallis's care, and transported him to the hospital, but he died. It is undisputed that no one who received training in the complimentary classes ExtendLife provided in 2009 was present at BX when Mr. Wallis collapsed in 2011 and that, although the AED located at BX was brought to Mr. Wallis's location, it was not deployed.

         On June 21, 2012, Mrs. Wallis filed suit against the Church, and she later amended her complaint to name, as an additional defendant, David Manuel Rojas, director of BX at the time of her husband's collapse.[4] Mrs. Wallis asserted claims of negligence and negligence per se. With respect to her negligence claim, Mrs. Wallis alleged that the Church owed a duty to those using BX, including Mr. Wallis, to maintain a reasonably safe facility, and this duty obligated the Church to ensure that BX personnel were properly trained in the use of the AEDs. Mrs. Wallis further contended that the Church owed a duty to use its AED on Mr. Wallis on August 20, 2011; that it breached this duty; and that this breach caused Mr. Wallis's death. With respect to her negligence per se claim, Mrs. Wallis alleged that the Church violated certain provisions of Tennessee's AED statutes, specifically Tennessee Code Annotated sections 68-140-403, -404, and -408, and that these violations caused Mr. Wallis's death.

         In its answer to the amended complaint, the Church denied negligence but also alleged that it had entered into a contractual agreement with ExtendLife, which obligated ExtendLife to "maintain [a] physician oversight program of the training and facilities" and to "oversee all compliance with federal, state, and local regulations regarding the use of AED[s]." The Church asserted that ExtendLife's obligations under the physician oversight program were described in an enclosure ExtendLife included with a letter ExtendLife sent the Church in April 2012, about eight months after Mr. Wallis's collapse. The enclosure, titled "AED Medical Direction-Physician Oversight Program, " stated:

Federal and state laws govern workplace defibrillation programs. Medical Direction, or physician oversight, is essential to a successful AED program, and is required by most states. It is also recommended by OSHA, the American Heart Association®, and state-county EMS. We manage the intricacies of your defibrillation program so that you can manage your business. With our system, ExtendLife's network of partnering physicians and medical professionals:

1. Provide initial physician's prescription for the AED purchase (FDA requirement).
2. Oversee compliance with federal, state, and local regulations regarding AEDs.
3. Monitor and advise you of ongoing changes in AED legislation.
4. Provide EMS registration for all AED locations and updates as needed (state requirement).
5. Establish written protocols for AED use by site rescuers (state requirement).
6. Establish equipment maintenance plan according to the manufacturer's user guide and provide for a system under which any legally required records are kept (state requirement).
7. Monitor and advise you of expiration of critical lifesaving parts and accessories (electrodes, batteries, etc.), through email notification.
8. Oversee that all site rescuers are properly trained and their skills are properly maintained (state requirement), ...

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