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Civil Liability of Law Enforcement Agencies & Personnel
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Public Protection: 911 Phone Systems
Monthly Law Journal Article: Public Protection: 911 Phone Systems, 2014 (6) AELE Mo. L. J. 101.
A motorist called
911 to report that several men had thrown a bottle and broken his car's
windshield. He told the operator who answered the call that the incident
occurred at a certain location in Detroit but that he and his passengers
had fled to safety to Wheat Ridge, a nearby municipality. For unclear reasons,
the 911 operator told him that he had to return to Detroit to receive any
help from the police. While he was driving back to Detroit, he was shot
and killed. His estate sued the 911 operator for violation of his civil
rights. The trial court granted the defendant operator summary judgment
on a variety of claims, with the sole exception of a 14th Amendment substantive
due process claim based on a theory of state-created danger. Reversing,
a federal appeals court ruled that the law was not clearly established
that a reasonable 911 operator would have known that the conduct at issue
violated the decedent's rights. The 911 operator was unlike any of the
defendants in the Tenth Circuit's state-created danger cases, he was not
a police officer, firefighter, or other similar first responder. Further,
he did not impose any limitation on the deceased's freedom to act. Estate
of Pal Reat v. Rodriguez, #15-1001, 824 F.3d 960 (10th Cir. 2016).
A woman who lived in an unincorporated area for which separate entities handled police emergencies and fire and ambulance services called 911, complaining that she could not breathe. The first operator who answered transferred the call to another agency's dispatcher and hung up. The next dispatcher got no response to her questions, hung up, and called the woman's number, but got a busy signal. An ambulance was dispatched for an "unknown emergency," and the crew that arrived could not enter and were not able to make a forced entrance without police. They were ordered to leave. After additional 911 calls were made by the woman's neighbors, a crew entered the home 41 minutes after the first call, but by then the woman was dead. Her family sued, and all defendants (a fire protection district and its ambulance crew) were granted summary judgment by the trial court, based on the public duty rule and a finding that the defendants did not owe the woman any special duty. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed and used the case to abolish the public duty rule in Illinois and its special duty exception. Further proceedings were ordered to determine whether the defendants could be held liable for alleged willful and wanton conduct under the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/1-101 et seq., in failing to adequately respond to the 911 call. The court found that the public policy once served by the public duty rule and its exceptions were not adequately served by enacted statutory immunities that limit liability for certain types of governmental activity to willful and wanton misconduct. Coleman v. E. Joliet Fire Prot. Dist., #117952, 2016 IL 117952, 2016 Ill. Lexis 257.
After suffering a pulmonary embolism, a woman dialed 911, telling the dispatcher that she could not breathe and needed emergency assistance. Due to a series of errors by dispatchers and emergency personnel, paramedics did not arrive for about 42 minutes, by which time she was dead. The trial court properly granted summary judgment to the defendants on a wrongful death claim. The decedent had no duty to her under the public duty rule, and no exception applied when she was not under the direct or immediate control of any defendant. Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection Dist., #117952, 2014 IL App (3d) 120583-U, 2014 Ill. App. Unpub. Lexis 1217.
A man called a county 911 line stating that another man was threatening to kick in his door and harm him, and requesting assistance. The dispatcher learned that the threatening man had apparently left and told the caller that there was therefore no longer a need for an officer to come to his home. No officer was sent and no further call was made. It was later discovered that the threatening man had robbed and killed the resident. The dead man's estate sued the county and dispatcher for wrongful death. The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld summary judgment for the defendants, who did not owe a special duty of care to the caller. Upchurch v. McDowell County 911, #12-0824, 2013 W. Va. Lexis 1149.
After an SUV collided with a center divider, a 911 operator allegedly told callers that California Highway Patrol officers were on the way. The 911 operator did not put into the computer that the disabled SUV was blocking traffic lanes, as a result of which the call was assigned to a patrol unit that was further away, rather than one close by. A Greyhound bus subsequently collided with the SUV, resulting in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits by passengers. Greyhound argued the 911 operator's actions had helped cause the second accident. Rejecting liability, an intermediate California appeals court ruled that the California Highway Patrol had no duty to come to anyone's aid in the absence of a special relationship entered into because an officer's affirmative acts caused the peril or increased it, but no such special relationship existed with the injured bus passengers. Greyhound Lines v. Department of the California Highway Patrol, #F063590, 2013 Cal. App. Lexis 117.
An intermediate North Carolina appeals court held that a county 911 center provides a governmental function, protecting the health and welfare of the county's citizens. It also noted that the center's insurance policy provided that it does not waive the defense of governmental immunity. It further held, therefore, that a trial court acted properly in dismissing a lawsuit against the 911 operators in their official capacity, while letting claims against them in their individual capacity proceed. The lawsuit concerned the 911 center's allegedly inadequate response to calls concerning a child who had stopped breathing, and subsequently died. Wright v. Gaston County, #COA09-792, 2010 N.C. App. Lexis 1248.
Two officers responded to a 911 call indicating that a man was having a seizure in his home. Finding the man in his bedroom, the officers allegedly told him to get dressed, which he started to do, but then he started to lie down again, and the officers allegedly picked him up by his hands, pulled him up from the ground, and told him to put his pants on. They ultimately handcuffed his wrists and ankles and the man began actively struggling with them. The officers, however, claimed that the man was unresponsive to verbal questioning, that one of them put a hand on his arm or shoulder to try to rouse him, and that he then did rouse, becoming aggressive and violent, pushing them and causing one officer to fall backwards, making it necessary to handcuff him. Firefighters then arrived as the officers were restraining him, and together with emergency medical personnel removed him on a stretcher. In a lawsuit against the officers for violation of the man's Fourth Amendment rights, a jury awarded him $6,000 for medical bills, and $275,00 for pain and suffering, but the trial court reduced the pain and suffering award to $10,000. A federal appeals court upheld this result, finding that the jury could reasonably have found that the officer acted in an "objectively law-enforcement rather than medical-response capacity," and unreasonably searched the house for drugs and seized the plaintiff. McKenna v. Honsowetz, #08-2080, 2010 U.S. App. Lexis 17114 (6th Cir.).
A man found his fiancée murdered by an unknown intruder in the apartment they shared. He filed a lawsuit against the county, which operates the local 911 emergency call system, claiming that a 911 call from the murdered woman was improperly handled, and seeking damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress he allegedly suffered as a bystander. A Wisconsin intermediate appeals court ruled that the plaintiff, as the murder victim's fiancé, was not in a category of persons "who may state a bystander claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress." State law, the court reasoned, limits such claims to the relationships between the plaintiff and the victim as spouses, parent-child, grandparent-grandchild, or siblings. Estate of Zimmerman v. Dane County, #2009AP1710, 2010 Wisc. App. Lexis 565.(Unpub. Dist. 4).
A village and its board could not be held liable for the death of a woman's husband based on the alleged electronic equipment failure of the 911 system. While state law imposes a duty to provide a 911 emergency call system, that duty is owed to the public at large, not to specific individuals. Donovan v. The Village of Ohio, #3-08-0776, 2010 Ill. App. Lexis 10 (3rd Dist.).
In response to a 911 call reporting a potentially suicidal armed teenager, a city dispatched both an ambulance and law enforcement officers. The teenager's mother subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that a failure to properly respond to the call caused her daughter to be shot and injured by an officer. The plaintiff did not establish that the city had a special duty to her or her daughter, and the court ruled that there also was no showing of negligence on the part of the city, or of a policy or custom of failing to respond appropriately to calls for emergency assistance. Perkins v. City of Rochester, #06-CV-6585, 2009 U.S. Dist. Lexis 55490 (W.D.N.Y.).
In a 2-1 decision, an intermediate Ohio appeals court ruled that a city and its 911 dispatcher were not liable for negligence in advising a mother to stop following her estranged husband after he had kidnapped her 18-month old daughter, who he subsequently murdered. The dispatcher did not engage in willful and wanton misconduct in advising the mother to either pull over or to return to her home and wait for police to provide assistance. The city and dispatcher were therefore entitled to governmental immunity. Myrick v. City of Cincinnati, C-080119, 2008 Ohio App. Lexis 5730 (Ohio App.1st Dist.).
Florida Supreme Court rules that claim against sheriff for negligence resulting in wrongful death may proceed when his office assumed a duty of care by responding to a woman's 911 call seeking emergency assistance but failed to have an ambulance sent to her location. Wallace v. Dean, No. SC08-149, 2009 Fla. Lexis 138.
Florida appeals court upholds summary judgment for city in lawsuit challenging city policy of recording all telephone calls to and from 911 call center. The plaintiffs contended that this included the improper recording of personal outgoing calls made by city employees and of non-emergency incoming calls. While the appeals court did not agree with the city or the trial court that all calls needed to be recorded to comply with a state 911 statute, the city had a good faith basis for its belief that the manner in which the "instant playback" system was installed in the center was legal, and the city's playback system was in compliance with the requirements of a Florida state 911 plan. Brillinger v. City of Lake Worth, Florida, No. 4D07-2033, 2008 Fla. App. Lexis 5200 (Fla. App. 4th Dist.).
A police dispatcher allegedly improperly used his job facilities, including searching 911 databases, to find and kill his former girlfriend and her boyfriend, relying on motor vehicle and license plate registrations The dispatcher's supervisor allegedly became aware of the dispatcher's improper searches and suspended him. During the suspension, two co-workers allegedly assisted him in obtaining information without authorization. In a lawsuit brought by the estate of the boyfriend, "state-created danger" claims against the supervisor were rejected, since he did not "act affirmatively" to increase the danger, but the plaintiff sufficiently pled that the co-workers knew of the dispatcher's threats to make the boyfriend "pay" for dating his ex-girlfriend, and acted with deliberate indifference to the results of their acts in assisting him, which constituted "conscience-shocking" behavior. The appeals court further ruled, however, that the plaintiff should be allowed to amend her claims against the supervisor to attempt to better establish them. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, No. 06-2869, 2008 U.S. App. Lexis 2513 (3rd Cir.).
Sheriff's deputies had no legal duty under Florida law to "act with care' while performing a well-being check at a woman's residence in response to a 911 call. When they came to her home, they found her breathing but unresponsive on a couch in her home, but did not summon medical aid, instead telling a neighbor to leave the woman's door unlocked and check on her later. The neighbor found the woman still unresponsive the next day, and called emergency medical personnel, who took the woman to the hospital, where she died without again becoming conscious. The court found that the deputies did not engage in any actions that increased or changed the risk to the woman, other than the risk that already existed. They also never assumed control over the premises or engaged in actions causing the neighbor or anyone else to rely on them. Wallace v. Dean, No. 5D06-4289, 2007 Fla. App. Lexis 18806 (Fla. App. 5th Dist.).
Firefighters, paramedics, and an emergency medical technician were not liable for the death of a man having an epileptic seizure based on claims that they used excessive force in restraining him after responding to a 911 call. They were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established law holding that paramedics answering such an emergency request for help made a Fourth Amendment "seizure" of the person they were attempting to assist by restraining him. The decedent was not in custody, so that any failure to provide appropriate medical treatment was not a violation of substantive due process. The court also ruled that the state-created danger doctrine did not apply. Peete v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County, No. 06-5321, 2007 U.S. App. Lexis 11959 (6th Cir.).
Death of woman who was having difficulty breathing could not result in municipal liability merely based on a fact that help was summoned through the city's 911 service, particularly when 911 was not called by anyone in the household, but rather by a medical alert company contacted by a household member. Conduct by an officer who arrived on the scene, however, and who allegedly repeatedly assured the household members that help was on the way, might be a basis for liability, requiring further proceedings. Etienne v. N.Y. City Police Dept., 2005-07313, (Index No. 8486/00), 2007 N.Y. App. Div. Lexis 2106 (2nd Dept.).[N/R]
City was not liable for the drowning of four boys based on alleged failure to respond to 911 call. Evidence presented did not show any justified reliance on a promise to send assistance or that the boys were placed into a worse situation than they would have been in had the 911 call not been made. Accordingly, there was no "special relationship" as required to impose liability under New York state law. Court further rejects the argument that emergency personnel's alleged failure to follow departmental standards of conduct and protocols, on its own could be a basis for liability. Badillo v. City of New York, No. 9632-9633, Index 13186/04, 2006 N.Y. App. Div. Lexis 15811 (1st Dept.). [N/R]
New York highest court rejects claim that City of New York was liable for failing to have an ambulance arrive at an office where a man was having a stroke until 35 minutes after his co-worker made a 911 call. The city's alleged slowness in responding to the 911 call placed by the co-worker, the court found, does not fit within an exception to the general rule of non-liability where an injured person has a "special relationship" with the city. The court found that no such special relationship existed, because the injured man, who was the plaintiff, did not have any direct contact with, and did not rely on any undertaking by the city's 911 operator. Laratro v. City of New York, No. 183 2006 N.Y. Lexis 3750. [N/R]
County was not liable for failure to provide assistance to a heart attack victim on the basis of a 911 call which was hung up before the dispatcher receiving the call could respond, and before any assurance of assistance was made. The dispatcher still sent an officer to investigate, but a prank call had also come from the same pay phone minutes earlier, and the officer cleared the call after finding a boy near the phone who admitted to having made the prank call, failing to go on to the address given in the call reporting the heart attack. The heart attack victim subsequently died. Under these circumstances, no promise of medical aid was given on which the heart attack victim could have reasonably relied. Cummins v. Lewis County, No. 76249-0, 133 P.3d 458 (Wash. 2006). [N/R]
County was not liable for assault on condominium owner, his 8-month-old son, and his neighbor by a disturbed man who broke into the home with a painted face while wearing what appeared to be a straight jacket and claimed to be on a mission from God. While the 911 operator who responded to the homeowner's call told him that she had notified police about his call about the man attempting to break in, she did not make any assurances that he would be protected, or any statements that he relied on in staying in his home. Harvey v. County of Snohomish, No. 76575-8, 245 P.3d 216 (Wash. 2006). [N/R]
In a lawsuit by a stroke victim and his wife against the City of New York for failing to provide timely assistance in response to a 911 call, the requirement for municipal liability of showing "direct contact" between agents of the city and the injured person is satisfied by a call made by the wife, rather than the victim, as a caller with a close relationship to the person in need. Factual issues as to whether the plaintiffs justifiably relied on the city's "affirmative undertaking" to provide assistance barred summary judgment for the city. Laratro v. City of New York, 808 N.Y.S.2d 145 (A.D. 1st Dept. 2005). [N/R]
Illinois Supreme Court rules that police officers who allegedly failed to assist domestic violence victim in response to 911 call were not entitled to absolute immunity under state law on a claim that their inaction was willful and wanton conduct which caused her death when her husband subsequently shot her. More specific limited immunity provision of domestic violence statute applied instead, with an exception for willful and wanton conduct. Moore v. Green, No. 100029, 2006 Ill. Lexis 613. [2006 LR Jun]
County and officer were not liable for woman's murder by her boyfriend, based on officer's dispatch to her residence following 911 calls, and decision to leave when he failed to hear any indications of a dispute inside. These actions neither created nor increased the danger that the woman would be killed, so there could be no liability under a "state-created danger" theory. May v. Franklin County Comm'rs, No. 05-3188, 2006 U.S. App. Lexis 3528 (6th Cir.). [2006 LR Apr]
Police department was not liable for the death of a man who became ill at another person's home based on alleged failure to timely respond to a 911 call for assistance. The claims asserted were barred by governmental immunity under Connecticut state law in the absence of knowledge that a failure to act would be likely to expose an identifiable person to an imminent harm. Glorioso v. Police Department of the Town of Burlington, No. X01CV02-01684818, 867 A.2d 160 (Conn. Super. 2004). [N/R]
Because there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether a 911 emergency operator gave express promises to an assault victim that police were being dispatched to the scene, or were already there, summary judgment in favor of the county was precluded in victim's negligence lawsuit. Court rules, however, that the county sheriff could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of county employees merely because he was their supervisor. Harvey v. County of Snohomish, No. 53449-1-I, 103 P.3d 836 (Wash. App. 2004). [N/R]
911 operator was not liable for man's murder of his wife and daughter based on classification of call by daughter as a family violence situation rather than a child injury in progress call. No violation of equal protection or due process was shown, and operator was entitled to qualified immunity. Beltran v. Amador, No. 03-50427, 2004 U.S. App. Lexis 7234 (5th Cir. 2004). [2004 LR May]
Texas statute, T.C.A. Civil Practice and Remedies Code Secs. 101.021(1) and 101.062(b), which states that Tort Claims Act applied to claims against public entities arising out of a volunteer's action in the course of providing 911 service or response only when the action violates a statute or ordinance did not unambiguously waive governmental immunity for such claims, but instead appeared to be intention to restrict liability of those responding to 911 calls rather than creating further liability. City of Dayton v. Gates, #09-03-310 CV, 126 S.W.3d 288 (Tex. App., Beaumont 2004). [N/R]
California Supreme Court rules that there is no liability for a public entity or its employees based on the alleged delay or failure to dispatch emergency personnel and equipment in response to a 911 call for assistance. Exception under statute for actions taken in bad faith or with gross negligence do not impose a general duty to provide assistance, but rather define the level of negligence needed to support liability once aid is actually rendered. Eastburn v. Regional Fire Protection Authority, No. S107792, 7 Cal. Rptr. 3d 552, 80 P.3d 656 (Cal. 2003). [2004 LR Mar]
Officer may have had a duty to protect a woman who called 911 when she was restrained in her apartment by an attacker, but his decision, in investigating the call, to knock, look in a window, and leave when he received no response was not unreasonable. May v. Franklin County Bd. of Com'rs, No. 01-4000, 59 Fed. Appx. 786 (6th Cir. 2003). [2003 LR Jul]
Police officers who declined to enter an apartment when responding to a neighbor's 911 call reporting that a woman inside had screamed were not "deliberately indifferent" to the rights of the woman resident who was raped and murdered. The officers heard nothing from inside during their investigation and made a good faith decision not to attempt to enter. Schieber v. City of Philadelphia, No. 01-2312, 320 F.3d 409 (3rd Cir. 2003). [2003 LR Jun]
City liable to man who injured his back while providing requested assistance to emergency medical technicians in lifting 300-lb. neighbor from his house to an ambulance responding to a 911 call. Governmental immunity did not apply, and plaintiff was properly awarded $345,000 in damages, along with $5,000 to his wife for loss of consortium. Caillouet v. City of New Orleans, No. 2002-CA-0475, 834 So. 2d 521 (La. App. 4th Cir. 2002). [N/R]
City which provided 911 phone system to respond to emergency calls and dispatched emergency medical technicians to assist one-year-old child choking on a grape was not liable for child's death based on alleged delay in arrival and failure to successfully rescue him. Federal appeals court rules that the city had no constitutional duty to provide competent rescue services. A "shocks the conscience" legal standard applied to the plaintiffs' due process claim, rather than a standard of "deliberate indifference." Brown v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Emergency Medical Services Training Institute, No. 01-3234, 2003 U.S. App. Lexis 953 (3rd Cir. 2003). [2003 LR Mar]
City was not liable for man's death based on 911 operator's decision to refer call asking for ambulance to a private ambulance company rather than dispatching a city ambulance. City policy and custom did not allow the reference of emergency calls to such private companies. Beswick v. City of Philadelphia, 185 F. Supp. 2d 418 (E.D. Pa. 2001). [2002 LR Jun]
No special relationship existed between municipalities which operated 911 system and caller who stated that he was being chased in a car by two men, one of whom had earlier threatened to kill him; cities and sheriff had no liability for caller's subsequent death. Pierre v. Jenne, No. 4D01-709, 795 So. 2d 1062 (Fla. App., 4th Dist., 2001) [2002 LR Feb]
Alleged eight minute response time to 911 call reporting attack on African-American pool hall co-owner by his fellow investors, even if true, did not show denial of equal protection. Plaintiff did not show that any delay was racially motivated or that response time was unreasonable. Brew v. City of Emeryville, No. C-99-4720, 138 F. Supp. 2d 1217 (N.D. Cal. 2001). [2002 LR Jan]
342:93 Paramedics responding to 911 call did not engage in willful and wanton misconduct by failing to take injured bar patron to the hospital when he refused treatment after they rendered him conscious and did not have reason to know that he was suffering from blunt impact injuries to his head from a fight rather than from intoxication alone. Denham v. City of New Carlisle, No. 98-CA-19, 741 N.E.2d 587 (Ohio App. 2000).
342:93 UPDATE: $2.7 million settlement in case where Illinois jury awarded $50 million to parents of youth who died of an asthma attack after 911 emergency call was made. Gant v. City of Chicago, No. 97-L-3579, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, p. 3 (March 8, 2001), Liability Reporter No. 339, p. 46 (March 2001). The plaintiffs and city have now settled the case for $2.7 million, prior to a scheduled May 1 trial date. Gant v. City of Chicago, No. 97-L-3579, Circuit Ct., Cook County, Ill., reported in The National Law Journal, p. A6 (April 23, 2001).
339:46 UPDATE: City wins retrial on damages in case where Illinois jury awarded $50 million to parents of youth who died of an asthma attack after 911 emergency call was made. Gant v. City of Chicago, No. 97-L-3579, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, p. 3 (March 8, 2001).
337:11 Illinois jury awards $50 million to parents of youth who died of an asthma attack after 911 emergency call was made; response time of up to 8-1/2 minutes by paramedics stationed at firehouse one block away, alleged
understaffing of dispatchers, and failure to provide CPR instructions were all pointed to, based on which jury found "willful and wanton" misconduct. Gant v. City of Chicago, No. 97-L-3579 (Nov. 30, 2000, Cir. Ct., Cook Co., Ill.), reported in The National Law Journal, p. A12 (Dec. 18, 2000).
EDITOR'S NOTE: In American National Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, #86215, 735 N.E.2d 551 (Ill. 2000), the Illinois Supreme Court found that a complaint adequately alleged willful and wanton misconduct in a 911 liability case similarly involving an asthma attack.
320:118 Federal appeals court rules that giving domestic violence 9-1-1 calls lower priority than other 9-1-1 calls may constitute an equal protection claim; finds that trial court did not adequately explore whether such a policy existed or whether it was rationally based. Fajardo v. County of Los Angeles, #96-55699, 179 F.3d 698 (9th Cir. 1999).
320:119 Officers were not entitled to qualified immunity for failure to make forced into woman's apartment after she made 9-1-1 call reporting her husband's attempt to murder her. Didzerekis v. Stewart, 41 F.Supp. 2d 840 (N.D. Ill. 1999).
315:38 City could not be held liable for damages for defects in 911 system which made it more difficult for deaf persons to make emergency calls in absence of a showing of intent to discriminate on the basis of disability. Ferguson v. City of Phoenix, #96-17350, 157 F.3d 668 (9th Cir. 1998).
314:29 Indiana city entitled to governmental immunity for death of man suffering heart attack who died after no ambulance was sent, despite four conversations with 911 dispatcher promising that an ambulance was on its way. Barnes v. Antich, 700 N.E.2d 262 (Ind. App. 1998).
295:110 City was not entitled to immunity under Illinois law for failure to swiftly respond to 911 call seeking ambulance for heart attack victim; factual issue remained as to whether city acted "willfully and wantonly" Harrell v. City of Chicago Heights, 945 F.Supp. 1112 (N.D.Ill. 1996).
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