MORRIS, N.J. -- Thomas Durkin wasn't just an emergency medical technician. The former president of the Kendall Park First Aid Squad was passionate about safety.
That's why his family believes the South Brunswick man knew he was within inches of a device that could have helped save him after he collapsed at the Hillsborough Pool, Racquet & Fitness Club on Jan. 8, 2007.
Durkin, 44, went into cardiac arrest while playing racquetball. As he started turning blue, someone called 911 and a staff member rushed over with an automated external defibrillator, or AED. The portable machine delivers an electric shock to the heart and helps the muscle resume its normal beat.
The staff started cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but instead of using the device, they waited nearly 7 minutes for Hillsborough police to arrive and perform defibrillation. The father of two was later pronounced dead.
Now, Durkin's family is suing HRC Management Inc., doing business as Hillsborough Pool, Racquet & Fitness, for gross negligence.
Durkin's wife, Denise, filed the lawsuit in Superior Court last month in Somerset County with assistance from her sister-in-law, Joan Durkin, a Texas-based lawyer. Attorney David Fried of Chatham is representing the family.
Club officials failed to return repeated calls for comment.
Joan Durkin insists the staff should have known state law requires health clubs to have an AED and trained personnel.
Choosing not to use the AED "involved an extreme degree of risk that the patron who suffered sudden cardiac arrest would not be able to be saved and would in fact die, as happened with Mr. Durkin," the lawsuit says.
New Jersey's law requiring health clubs to have AEDs became effective Jan. 12, 2006, but facilities had until Jan. 12, 2007, to comply. Durkin died four days earlier.
A health club could not be cited for noncompliance before the 2007 deadline, said Dawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
Joan Durkin says the club is still responsible for her brother's death.
"The conduct of the health club staff bringing the defibrillator there is clearly an admission that they understood the need for it," she said recently.
The club could have a duty apart from the state statute, said Jay Feinman, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, who specializes in contracts and insurance law.
"They might have a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of their customers," Feinman said. That leads to several questions, including: "Would they have failed to exercise reasonable care by waiting for the paramedics instead of using the device?"
Durkin died of sudden cardiac arrest secondary to arrhythmia, the lawsuit says.
The latter is an interruption of the heartbeat or rhythm, and sudden cardiac death occurs when the heart stops functioning, said Kataneh Maleki, an electrophysiologist - a subset of cardiology - with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at UMDNJ-RWJ Medical School.
Ventricular fibrillation can be a cause, she said. "It means the heart beats extremely fast and the ventricles are fluttering or quivering so the blood cannot be delivered to the body, Maleki said.
Defibrillation sends a strong electronic shock to the heart, stops that chaos and allows the heart to beat in a more organized fashion, said Michele Lieberman, emergency cardiovascular care, community strategies manager in New York and New Jersey for the American Heart Association.
Health clubs and nursing homes are the only entities required to have AEDs under state law, according to the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services. Bills are pending before the Senate and Assembly committees that could lead to greater use.
Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union) is co-sponsoring a bill that would require public schools, recreational fields and youth camps to have AEDs for youth athletic events. The device would have to be within reasonable proximity of the school athletic field or gymnasium where the event is taking place, Bramnick said.
Janet's Law would be named for 11-year-old Janet Zilinski, who collapsed at cheerleading practice in 2006.
The American Heart Association also wants changes in the Good Samaritan law passed in the 1990s, specific to AEDs. Entities that acquire the device must have a training protocol for using it, said Katie Drude, the association's regional director of advocacy.
If a person is certified in the device and something goes wrong, that person cannot be held liable, she said. Anyone else is not protected, she said.