Thursday, January 24, 2002
C.A. Allows Suit Blaming 911 Operator’s Negligence for Death
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A public entity that operates an emergency telephone response system can be held liable for a death resulting from the negligent training of a 911 operator, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Two, rejecting San Francisco’s argument that allowing such suits would be bad public policy, reinstated an action against the city by the family of Angelique Chan. The woman died from an acute asthma attack on the evening of Aug. 27, 1998, and the family contends she would have survived had the operator been trained in, and followed, the response protocols established by the city.
The plaintiffs presented evidence that San Francisco and its ambulance providers had agreed to implement a system of “criteria-based dispatching,” in which emergency assistance is dispatched on the basis of uniform criteria, three months before Chan’s death. Previously, the city used a city in which operators asked callers a series of specific questions, even if some of the questions were irrelevant to the particular emergency.
As part of the new system, the city adopted guidelines addressing response to complaints of shortness of breath. The guidelines provided in part that if the caller reports an “uncomfortable breathing pattern” or sounds as if he or she is unable to breathe normally, the call should be treated as “Code 3”—high priority.
Chan’s husband said that on the night in question, his wife was having difficulty breathing, so he took her to a Kaiser facility in San Francisco. He was unaware that the facility did not provide emergency services.
A security guard at Kaiser called 911.
According to testimony, the operator—a trained paramedic who had taken the assignment as a form of “light duty” after returning from a job-related injury earlier that month—told the security guard to try and put Chan on the phone, to which the guard replied that she would be unable to speak.
Hearing screaming in the background, the operator said it sounded as if Chan was “flipping out” from drug use, and said she would call the police, as well as an ambulance. She then called the police dispatcher to report the incident, which she logged as a “20 yo female OD bizarre aggressive violent…PD to respond.”
The police arrived about 10 minutes later and the ambulance about 10 minutes after that. The paramedics were unable to revive Chan.
One of them later testified that the incident had been reported “Code 2.” If it had been a “Code 3,” he said, the response would have been quicker and Chan certainly would have survived.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge David Garcia granted summary judgment, saying the city had no duty to Chan with respect to how 911 operators are trained, and that discretionary function immunity applied. But Justice Ignacio Ruvolo, writing for the Court of Appeal, disagreed.
While the city was not obligated to provide any particular type of emergency services, Ruvolosaid, once it adopted a 911 system and a protocol for dispatching help, it was obligated to train the operators in the protocol.
The operator, Ruvolo went on to say, should acted on the basis of the description of Chan’s condition furnished by the Kaiser security guard.
“Instead, she embarked on a speculative investigation into the cause of [Chan’s] breathing distress, which wasted precious time––time which apparently could have been applied successfully in averting the tragedy,” the justice wrote. “Indeed, both [the head of the Department of Public Health, which oversees the 911 system] as well as the printed CBD protocols state that the cause of the reported life-threatening symptom is irrelevant to making an appropriate emergency response. Someone who loses the ability to breathe needs immediate attention regardless of whether the cause of the difficulty is from asthma, drug induction, or food ingestion.”
The case is Ma v. City and County of San Francisco, A092105.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company