SAN FRANCISCO - Mary Ann Verdugo, 49, was shopping with her mother in a Southern California Target store when she collapsed in the jewelry department and died there of a sudden cardiac arrest before paramedics arrived.
Target officials extended their condolences to the Verdugo family, calling the incident an unfortunate but unpreventable tragedy. The family disagreed and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, arguing that Target should have had a device called an automatic external defibrillator on hand and a worker trained to use it to jolt Verdugo's heart back to beating.
On Tuesday, the California Supreme Court takes up the issue of whether Target and other large retailers in the state are required to have defibrillators ready to use on stricken customers.
Target and its supporters argue that such a requirement of retailers is costly and unfair, opening them up to liability in other medical emergencies. Defibrillator supporters counter that the cardiac arrest is different from other emergencies and the device is inexpensive and easy enough to use that it should be mandatory in all large retail stores.
It's a debate that has been slowly playing out across the country for nearly two decades as defibrillators become cheaper to buy and easier to use. All 50 states and the federal government have laws requiring various entities to have the devices in place, beginning with a Florida law passed in 1997. Defibrillators are now found in airports, courthouses, casinos, churches, fitness centers, schools, amusement parks and many other public places throughout the country.
And nobody disputes the defibrillator's power to prevent death if used immediately after a cardiac arrest. The American Heart Association says as many as 300,000 Americans suffer cardiac arrest each year and that the quick use of a defibrillator can increase survival rates from 8 percent to 30 percent.
Unlike a heart attack, cardiac arrests often occur with no prior warning or symptoms and can strike an otherwise healthy heart. They can be corrected, however, with a jolt of electricity from a defibrillator.
But the defibrillator has to be deployed within minutes of a cardiac arrest to be useful.
That's why Rosemary Verdugo decided to file a lawsuit against Target after her daughter's 2008 death. She believes lives will be saved if large retailers are required to have defibrillators.
"A lot of other people can be helped," Verdugo said in a phone interview from her Pico Rivera home. "The lawsuit is not only about money."
The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation and several other organizations support the Verdugo family's federal court lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages. The lawsuit argues that a California law that requires stores to render first aid includes having mandatory defibrillators on site, although it does not specify them.
Target spokesman Evan Lapiska declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
In court papers, Target and a host of business interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say a retailer is required only to promptly call 911 when there is cardiac arrest.
A federal court trial judge tossed out Verdugo's lawsuit filed in 2010, ruling that California law doesn't require retailers to have defibrillators.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012 said that state law is unsettled on the question and asked the California Supreme Court to answer it.
The California Supreme Court's ruling will likely determine the outcome of Verdugo's lawsuit and whether large retailers will be required to have defibrillators.
The California Supreme Court is required to rule within 90 days.