How far does the duty to try to save a life go?
That philosophical question became a legal one Tuesday as the California Supreme Court was asked to weigh in.
In recent years, many stores and government buildings have installed automated external defibrillators, which can save the lives of people whose hearts stop.
But now the court must decide whether a store can be required to have a defibrillator - and held liable if it doesn't.
The question in the underlying case is whether Target Corp. is responsible for the death of a woman who went into cardiac arrest and died in a Los Angeles County store.
But the court's answer could have broad implications for stores across California.
Mary Ann Verdugo, 49, went into cardiac arrest on Aug. 31, 2008 at the Target in Pico Rivera. By the time paramedics got to her, she was dead.
The store did not have an automated external defibrillator, or AED.
Verdugo's family sued Target in state court, arguing the company breached its duty to provide care to members of the public invited into its store. The case was moved to federal court because Target is headquartered in another state, Minnesota.
A federal trial judge threw the case out, ruling Target had no legal duty to have an AED on hand. Verdugo's mother and brother appealed.
There's no California law requiring any store to have defibrillators on hand. But long-standing state common law requires stores to provide first aid to the public, a theory known as the "duty of care."
Could a jury hold that means a Target must buy an AED for every store?
Because that's a question of California law, not federal law, the federal appeals court's order Tuesday asked the California Supreme Court to answer it. That process is known as "certifying a question of law."
How the state high court answers will determine how the federal case proceeds.
In court filings, Target says the duty to provide first aid means only that store employees must call 911 to summon help for someone having a medical emergency.
Verdugo's family says what's required has changed as technology has changed. They argue that with cardiac arrest so common - nearly 700 Americans a day die of it - and AEDs a proven lifesaver, it's reasonable to require them to be on hand.
David Eisenstein, a lawyer for the Verdugo family, said whether a store could be held liable would depend on factors including the size of the store and the number of shoppers. A mall or a big box store such as Target might have a duty to have an AED, while a small store might not. Juries or judges could decide in individual cases.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Harry Pregerson said he would have ruled for the Verdugos and sent the case to trial.