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Florida Bill to Wipe Out AED Lawsuit Fears

ORLANDO -- Automated external defibrillators, like the hundreds Walt Disney World has deployed throughout its Central Florida property, could become more commonplace in Florida under a change in state law proposed by state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs.

Constantine wants to alter the wording in Florida law so that anyone who can lay hands on a portable heart defibrillator in an emergency can use it to try saving someone's life without worrying about a lawsuit later.

His Senate Bill 564, advocated by the American Heart Association, is intended to sweep away liability risks so that schools, businesses and other institutions, small and large, might feel more comfortable about buying portable defibrillators and placing them in handy locations -- as fire extinguishers are now -- without worrying about someone getting sued.

Walt Disney Co. has been among the leaders nationally in purchasing such defibrillators; it says it has 500 at Disney World alone. Disney officials said last month they plan to distribute 200 more of the devices throughout the giant resort, placing some in public locations such as restrooms.

But there also have been heart-attack deaths at Disney -- notably one last month in Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park -- during which an automated external defibrillator was not readily available.

Last year, Constantine successfully championed the American Heart Association's drive to get automated external defibrillators, also known as AEDs, into high schools throughout Florida. This time, the group is pushing to get the devices into schools at all levels.

It's that effort -- not concerns expressed by any businesses -- that spurred a review of the liability issues, Constantine said recently.

His bill would revoke a provision of Florida law that now requires a person to have first obtained "appropriate training" before using an automated external defibrillator

"A lot of people suggest that one reason they don't want to put it in the schools or in their businesses is because of the liability," Constantine said. "But I think the heart association is correct: We need to make this a comfort level. I frankly believe more lives will be saved by having it in a building or a school than would be lost if it were misused or not used at all because they're afraid to put them in."

A similar bill introduced last year by state Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, went nowhere, in part because of other provisions included in that legislation, said James Mosteller, Florida advocacy director for the American Heart Association.

Mosteller said the newest defibrillators are extremely simple to use -- they even walk the user through the process with spoken step-by-step instructions -- so the current legal requirement for trained users only gets in the way of their wider use.

"They're pretty close to idiot-proof nowadays. They're really phenomenal devices now," Mosteller said. "We are trying to alleviate the liability concerns for anybody, whether it's Disney or the Orlando Sentinel or Joe's Sub Shop. We don't want Joe's Sub Shop to be hampered in putting one out in the open because his insurance adjuster says, 'Um, here's a reason why that might not be a good idea.'"

Although Disney World has 500 defibrillators on site, only three were inside the 500-acre Animal Kingdom, and none of them was near the Expedition Everest ride when Jeffery C. Reeb, 44, of Navarre, had a heart attack there and died Dec. 18.

Disney officials said after Reeb's death that they rely primarily on professional paramedics' quick response to such emergencies.

A Disney official said last week the company has not had a chance to review Constantine's bill, though he indicated the company welcomed efforts to make defibrillators more readily available.

"Our latest AED deployment is part of our continuous effort to enhance safety and is not associated with any proposed changes in the law," said the spokesman, Jacob DiPietre. "While we haven't had the opportunity to review the proposed changes, generally speaking, efforts aimed at encouraging the deployment and use of AEDs in the community are beneficial."

One group that might feel differently about S.B. 564 is the state's trial lawyers, who usually oppose efforts to reduce a person's opportunities to sue for compensation after injuries or wrongful deaths brought about by someone's negligence.

Constantine said he was preparing for possible opposition from the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. That group's spokeswoman, Jacqui Sisto, said Wednesday the trial lawyers do have some concerns that may be raised at a workshop next week.

Mosteller said the American Heart Association was already talking with the trial lawyers' leadership. "We're working with their folks to see if we can come to an agreement," he said.

CONTACT: Scott Powers can be reached at spowers@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5441.

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