Automated External Defibrillators Insurance Coverage Discussed at Aug. 15 School Board Meeting

Call it a cautionary letter.

In a two-page missive dated Aug. 15, the insurance carrier for the Southern Humboldt Unified School District issued what amounts to a warning: It will not cover any claims that result from the use of Automated External Defibrillators, or AEDs, at the district’s school sites.

Used properly, the portable electronic device can diagnose and treat the potentially life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias known as ventricular fibrillations. It does so through the application of an electrical shock that allows the heart to reestablish its normal rhythm.

The letter, signed by Stacy Lane, executive director of the Eureka-based North Coast Schools’ Insurance Group, was in response to questions raised by Superintendent Catherine Scott in light of a state law that took effect last year that allows school districts to buy or accept donated AED units.

Another state law that took effect at the beginning of this year revised the rules that school districts and other entities must follow to obtain immunity from civil liability in the event of the use of AEDs.

“The potential implications to a school district that did not follow the yet-untested law could be financially catastrophic for both the district [and the insurance group],” warned Lane, who earlier in the letter had explained that the decision not to provide coverage to “any member district” was made by the district’s governing board in a unanimous vote taken in March.

The issue of AEDs and insurance coverage came up during last Thursday’s regularly scheduled meeting of the district’s governing board, held at Redway Elementary.

School districts are not required to have AEDs on hand but since they can legally obtain them the topic at issue was whether the district should do so. While the subject generated some discussion, the board took no action.

Scott told the board that certain other school districts, such as Ukiah Unified, have policies in place regarding the use of AEDs. She also made clear that, in light of the warning from the insurance carrier as well as advice from legal counsel, SHUSD currently has no AEDs.

The legal advice Scott was referring to is contained in “Legal Update” that was sent out in November 2014, two months before the law allowing school districts to purchase and maintain AEDs took effect. The memorandum, by Frank Zotter, Jr., a lawyer with School and College Legal Services of California, said “districts should very carefully consider” whether or not to acquire AEDs.

“By acquiring an AED, a district will be accepting various responsibilities — which may not be covered by the immunity if all obligations are not met,” Zotter wrote.

That fact that SHUSD doesn’t have AEDs didn’t sit well with Crystal Salomon, a member of the audience who said that her school-age son has a heart condition.

She said that other districts and other schools have obtained AEDs, including Whale Gulch Elementary, which she said has an AED that was provided by the Humboldt Area Foundation.

“I don’t see why we’re not doing it. If someone collapses on the basketball court, we’re liable,” she asserted.

She pointed to a Florida case in which she said a school district was sued after a student-athlete collapsed during a soccer game. While she said that emergency personnel arrived and used an AED to revive the student, “the school was sued for not having an AED in the first place.”

Scott, in response, told the board: “I’m not opposed [to obtaining AEDs]. I’m just trying to give information.”

That information, obviously, includes Zotter’s memo as well as Lane’s letter warning of “loopholes and inherent liability,” as Scott phrased it, in existing law.

“If someone dies because [an AED wasn’t] used properly, or because it wasn’t checked regularly, or if it was [locked] in the principal’s office [when it was needed], that creates liability,” Scott said.

“But every time you’re opening the school you’re creating liability,” Salomon retorted. “So the risk of [AEDs] being misused doesn’t outweigh [the risk] of not having them.”

As for Lane’s letter, the author cited examples of “how easily the district’s immunity could be waived for failure to comply with the letter of the law.”

One way, she wrote, would be if “the staff member responsible for maintaining and testing the AED accidentally inspected it one day past the required timeline.” Another would be if staff failed to provide the proper notification when an AED was moved from one school office to another.

“The board, as well as our attorneys, feel that the way the law is currently written, there is a very high probability of the district’s immunity not being upheld in the case of a claim or a lawsuit,” Lane told Scott in the letter’s penultimate paragraph.

“For that reason, they felt it was in the best interest of all members to exclude coverage for all districts until such time that the law is changed or offers a higher level of immunity for those that choose to use AEDs on campus.”

Speaking the day after the meeting, Scott said the situation amounted to “another example of a poorly written law in Sacramento.”

Because the law “doesn’t adequately spell out [details],” Scott said “it puts us in the position of being responsible” without providing adequate protection from liability.

On another matter, a written “Project Status Update” by Guy Fryer of Siskiyou Design Group, the architect for the district’s ongoing modernization effort, was discussed.

According to the update, drawings regarding planned construction work on the South Fork High School gymnasium complex have been completed and are currently before the Department of State Architect. “Plan approval is anticipated on Sept. 7,” Fryer said.

He also said that the contractor, Dinsmore Construction out of Fortuna, is bidding the project this month, “and should have cost information by the latter part of September.”

What it all means, Scott told the board, is that construction should commence at the beginning of October.

“It’s really exciting,” she remarked.