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On Target and on Time? Recent Legal Cases in Emergency Dispatch

Author: Stephen Tuck

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-08-08
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Dispatchers may be considered the forgotten emergency service.  In some ways they have the most challenging job of all: they deal with callers who are distressed, responders who are under pressure, and a public who has little regard for their skills [Henry Stimpson, “When first responders multiply into overkill,” Boston Globe, 21 July 2017, p.A11.].  A trio of recent legal decisions have added to the factors they must consider.

City of Dallas v Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d 722 (Tex., 2016)

At about 0245 on 16 November 2012, emergency dispatchers received a request for assistance following a drug overdose at an address in Dallas.  An ambulance was dispatched.  At about 0255 dispatchers received another request for assistance for the same address.  The call came from a different telephone number to the earlier call and related to a Matthew Sanchez.  The caller was told that an ambulance was on its way and the call was disconnected.  The ambulance crew concluded erroneously that the second call was a duplicate of the first.  They did not attend Mr. Sanchez, who died at around 0840.

The deceased’s parents sued the City of Dallas in negligence.  To avoid the defendant’s immunity from suit, it was necessary for them to show that the “personal injury or death [was] proximately caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property” [Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code, §101.021(2)].  The plaintiffs had alleged that the 9-1-1 system had been misused or malfunctioned and that if the emergency responders had located Sanchez, they would have saved his life.

The Supreme Court of Texas dismissed the plaintiffs’ case, finding that the alleged malfunction did not proximately cause Mr. Sanchez's death.  The six hours which passed before Sanchez’s death and the separate error by the ambulance crew both greatly diminished the impact of any dispatch problems.  The alleged malfunction was a factor but not a proximate cause. 

Cook v City of Dallas (5th US Cir. Ct App., Elrod, Southwick and Graves JJ, 29 March 2017, unreported)

On 17 August 2012 Deanna Cook was murdered by Delvecchio Patrick, her ex-husband [State v Delvecchio Patrick (292nd Texas Judicial Dist. Ct, Birmingham J, 22 May 2015, unreported)].  She called 9-1-1 and her call recorded 17 minutes of Mr. Patrick's assault.  However, it was 'several minutes' before her location was provided to the 9-1-1 call center.  Police arrived at the scene nearly 50 minutes after the call commenced.  They left after inspecting the outside of the building without entering.  Ms. Cook's body was located by family inside the house two days later.

Ms. Cook's family sued a range of parties including T-Mobile and Samsung.  They alleged that her mobile phone service did not enable her name and location to be transferred instantly to a 9-1-1 call taker, dispatcher or police car. They asserted that Cook would not have died if this information had been instantly transmitted.

The Texas Health and Safety Code §771.053(a) provides that a –

service provider of communications service involved in providing 9-1-1 service . . . [or] a manufacturer of equipment used in providing 9-1-1 service . . . is not liable for any claim, damage, or loss arising from the provision of 9-1-1 service unless the act or omission proximately causing the claim, damage, or loss constitutes gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional misconduct.

The Court found that the plaintiffs not sufficiently alleged that the defendants' putative negligence proximately caused their injuries [The court was heavily influenced by the decision in Sanchez previously discussed].  There was no plausible allegation that the dispatcher or police would have acted differently had the deceased’s location been provided immediately rather than “in several minutes”.  Further, even if the short delay in providing Cook’s location contributed to her not receiving life-saving assistance, the court found that the delay was too attenuated from the cause of her death to be ‘proximate’.

In re: Death of Jakupi (Coroners Ct of Vic., Coroner Carlin, 5 July 2016, unreported)

Responders cannot help a casualty they cannot find.  At 0512 on June 9th, 2014 Mr. Medzit Jakupi had trouble breathing and called emergency services.  He gave his address but did not say that he lived in a caravan park.  His caravan could not be located when an ambulance arrived at 0525.  Dispatch made enquiries with police (Mr. Jakupi did not respond to return phone calls) and obtained his site number.  The ambulance crew reached the casualty at 0555 but found him unresponsive.  At 0600 he was declared dead.

Mr. Jakupi’s family declined to have an autopsy performed on religious and cultural grounds.  A forensic pathologist concluded that the death was caused by natural causes but could not be precise as to diagnosis.  However, she considered that if the deceased had been suffering heart failure, then earlier treatment may have led to a different outcome.  On the other hand, if the cause of death was a pulmonary embolus, then it was unlikely he would have been helped by earlier intervention.

The Coroner found that she could not be satisfied that earlier attendance by paramedics would have prevented Mr. Jakupi’s death.  However, she considered that if the dispatcher had asked more questions, the deceased may have been prompted to tell them that he lived in a caravan at a particular site.  She recommended that dispatch protocols be altered to ask an additional question along the lines of “is that a house or an apartment or something else”.

Discussion

The decisions in Sanchez and Cook will come as good news to emergency dispatchers in Texas.  They emphasize the protections 9-1-1 operators have in responding to claims of negligence.   However, the decisions discussed above will repay study by dispatchers and their managers in all jurisdictions. Sanchez is an object lesson in the need to consider the callout from the responders’ point of view.  If a dispatcher has reason to think that an incident might be mistakenly considered to be a duplicate, the responding crew should be asked to take some reasonable steps to confirm that there is (or is not) another matter to be dealt with.  Similarly, one can infer that the modest police response in Cook reflected the information given to officers by their dispatcher (the judgment discussed here is not clear what information was passed on).  Details of an active and prolonged assault might be thought to require a swifter or more thorough response, police resources permitting.  Finally Jakupi’s Case reinforces the value of full enquiries from dispatchers.  In a perfect world the caller will be able to supply full particulars of their situation.  Often, however, a person in distress will forget critical details if not prompted.  The key reminder from each of Sanchez, Cook and Jakupi is the critical place of dispatchers in connecting emergency situations with responders.

 

Stephen Tuck is a former lawyer and an emergency responder with the Victoria State Emergency Service in Australia.  He is also the Controller of the Tatura State Emergency Service Unit.

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