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911 Dispatch Error and Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Texas

In a 2016 Texas Supreme Court case, the Court considered an error in 911 dispatching that resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The case arose from two early morning 911 calls. The calls came from two different numbers but were within 10 minutes of each other and came from the same building. Both asked for help for a drug overdose victim, but the calls were about two different victims. The second call was placed shortly before 3:00 a.m. and concerned the plaintiffs’ child. A 911 dispatcher got information about the emergency and the apartment number and told the caller that the emergency responders were on the way. The call was disconnected.

After the responders got to the building to help the drug overdose victim who was the subject of the first call, they mistakenly determined that the second call was about the same victim. They didn’t go to the plaintiffs’ son’s apartment to help him, and he died shortly before 9:00 a.m.

The man’s parents sued the city for negligence. They had several alternative arguments:  that the 911 dispatcher shouldn’t have hung up before the emergency responders arrived, that the 911 phone system had malfunctioned, that improper procedures were followed, and that if the emergency responders had found their son before leaving, they could have saved his life.

The City moved to dismiss and argued it was immune from suit. It argued the allegations had to do with how information was communicated, and the death was not caused by the misuse of the phones but by a drug overdose. It also argued that the complaint didn’t state an statutory exception that made the Tort Claims Act inapplicable to 911 calls.

The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, except with regard to the complaint that the phone system had failed. The appellate court affirmed and held that the parents had adequately pled that a phone problem legally caused their son’s death and that they adequately pled a legal violation as an exception to the waiver exclusion.

The Court explained that the issue was whether the City was immune from suit under the Texas Tort Claims Act, since the lawsuit pled that the phone system defect had legally caused the decedent’s death.

Under Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 101.021(2), there is a limited waiver of governmental immunity that arises from a condition or use of tangible personal property. The Court held that governmental immunity wasn’t waived in this case, however, since there wasn’t enough of a causal connection between the problem in the telephone system and the decedent’s death. There had to be a stronger causal connection between the condition of the phone system and the death.

The appellate court explained that to be a “proximate” or legal cause, an event must be both a cause in fact and foreseeable. The event — the alleged disconnection in this case — must be a substantial factor in causing the harm. In this case, there were five hours between the alleged phone malfunction and the death, which reduced the causal connection. The responders had made a mistake in assuming that the calls were redundant. Although the disconnection might have contributed to circumstances that delayed the help, the malfunction was too remote to be a proximate cause of the death.

If a loved one dies as a result of negligence or a defective product, the San Antonio wrongful death attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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