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Law Allows Citizens to Help Heart Attack Victims

State law and automated defibrillators now make it possible for ordinary citizens to find themselves delivering electric shock to heart attack victims in malls, movie theaters or even restaurants. 

Q:        What is an automated external defibrillator (AED)?
“Automated external defibrillation” is the process of applying a specialized defibrillator to a person in cardiac arrest, allowing the defibrillator to interpret the cardiac rhythm, and, if appropriate, delivering an electrical shock to the heart to allow it to resume effective electrical activity. According to the American Heart Association, an AED is a device used to administer an electric shock through the chest wall to the heart.

Q:        Why are AEDs important?
To date, electric shock is the most effective way to restart a stopped heart. When a person suffers a sudden cardiac arrest, that person’s chance of survival decreases by between seven and 10 percent for each minute that passes without defibrillation.

Q:        What law allows ordinary citizens to perform electric shock?
House Bill 717, which became law in December 1998, encourages widespread use of AEDs to increase the chances of an individual surviving cardiac arrest. Early defibrillation is the single most effective intervention for those having a cardiac arrest. In fact, the American Heart Association estimates that 100,000 or more deaths could be prevented if external defibrillation were more widely used.

Q:        How can an ordinary citizen use an AED to shock a person’s heart?
A:        The creation of AEDs makes it possible for individuals outside of the healthcare profession to practice defibrillation because the unit actually “speaks” the necessary instructions to the individual and automatically determines the amount of shock to be delivered. Because the equipment is easy to use, the law allows anyone to use an AED as long as certain guidelines are followed.

Generally, two electrodes are applied to the individual’s chest. These electrodes sense the electrical current that is being sent throughout the heart. When the AED senses an irregular electrical current, it will send out electrical watts to regulate the heart’s electrical current. The AED will activate when it senses an irregular electrical current. If the user attempts to utilize the AED for a regular heart beat, the AED will not operate and will send a voice-activated message to the user. An individual who uses an AED must follow some important guidelines to insure proper use of the AED. 

Q:        What guidelines must be followed when using an AED?
First, a person who wishes to use an AED must complete a course on how to use the equipment. The American Heart Association offers such a course and many hospitals provide training. Next, the person must be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Together, these two courses represent approximately 12 hours of training. Finally, a lay person who uses an AED must call for the back-up support of emergency medical services (EMS) as soon as possible. The AED can assist in regulating the heart’s electrical activity but does not replace medical care. 

 Q:       If I use an AED to save someone’s life, can I be sued later if something goes wrong?
A:       The law gives individuals using AEDs immunity from civil damages for injury, death or loss to person or property, and also provides that they cannot be held criminally liable for performing automated external defibrillation in good faith. This immunity applies whether or not the user is trained in the use of the AED unless there is willful or wanton misconduct or the user of the AED fails to make a good faith attempt to obtain the assistance of an emergency medical squad as soon as possible. 

The law also provides immunity to individuals providing training in the use of an AED and in CPR. Further, the law provides that no physician shall be held liable for writing a prescription for an AED or for consulting with a person regarding the use and maintenance of an AED. 

Q:        How can I obtain an AED?
Restaurants, schools, libraries, department stores, fitness facilities, police stations and other local and state agencies can purchase AEDs with a physician’s prescription. Individuals who are interested in purchasing an AED can contact the American Heart Association. According to law, anyone who obtains an AED must require expected users to complete an approved course in the use of the AED and in CPR. Many businesses and public institutions are not equipped with AED units due to their cost or because their employees are not trained in AED use. 


Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Renee Mallett, Esq., Director of Patient Safety at The Ohio State University Medical Center.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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