Washington: “high court allows lawsuit over 911 response”

by Walter Olson on December 2, 2012

“The family of a man shot and killed by his neighbor in Skagit County can proceed to trial on claims that the county’s emergency communications center mishandled its response to his panicked 911 call, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled.” According to his family, a 911 operator told William Munich that help was on the way but did not code the call as an emergency; a sheriff’s deputy showed up 18 minutes later, by which time Munich had been shot by the irate neighbor. “I am concerned the majority’s decision will put unwarranted pressure on every statement made by 911 operators, straining communications that depend on the free flow of information,” wrote dissenting Justice James Johnson. [KOMO; Munich (Gayle) v. Skagit Emergency Communications Center, holding, dissent (wrong link fixed now); background on Washington's unusual approach to sovereign immunity]

P.S. Another Washington sovereign liability case of interest: Robb v. City of Seattle, “Whether the city of Seattle may be liable in an action for wrongful death brought by the survivor of a murder victim based on the failure of police to confiscate ammunition while detaining the murderer for questioning just before the murder occurred.” [Temple of Justice]

{ 3 comments }

1 Jason Barney 12.02.12 at 12:59 pm

Now, it is the law of the land in the State of Washington that if a 911 operator truthfully tells a panicked caller that law enforcement has been dispatched–as was the case here–and plaintiff, with Monday morning quarterbacking, can find any question of fact that the call was somehow delayed or mis-prioritized the state is liable for whatever harm might befall. And, people don’t call 911 when things are going well. So, now the state is nearly the de facto insurer for whatever harm befalls 911 callers.

In this case the victim called 911 after his neighbor fired a rifle in his direction. He left the scene, first called a friend and then 911. 911 prioritized the call level 2 since it was not immediately in progress (and in context this is a rural area where the firing of a rifle is not a light/sirens type response). Later, the wacko with the rifle chased him out of his garage and then the victim again first called his friend and then 911. Tragically, he was gunned down while on the phone with 911 making plaintiff’s estate exhibit A. Only after the victim’s second call was the call prioritized level 3 with the lights/sirens response.

The old law to dissolve immunity in a case like this was for the 911 dispatcher to make a statement that was false or unfulfilled that a caller relied on to his/her detriment. Here, when the dispatcher said law enforcement was dispatched it was; the dispatcher did not say law enforcement would arrive at any particular time or would be dispatched in any particular manner. And, it was the victim’s sole decision to wait where he did and was not encouraged by the dispatcher.

Sadly, this is one more step in making the State of Washington liable for any harm that may befall the general public. And, it’s important to note that plaintiff’s estate did not sue the man who killed him. He’s notably absent as a party to the lawsuit. So, when the plaintiff’s bar crows about holding wrongdoers accountable and championing the rights of victims, feel free to laugh in their face.

Now, and I’m being serious, all 911 dispatchers can say without incurring liability is, “we acknowledge your call”. When callers ask if an ambulance or police have been dispatched they will hear, “we acknowledge your call”. No truthful, affirmative statement can be given lest the government (read: taxpayers) be liable for death via heart attack, murder, rape or whatever that could have been somehow prevented if the call was dispatched some other way, or prioritized in a manner differently in light of the other calls also currently under consideration.

Do you send the deputy to the domestic violence call or the shooting call; what about the prowling? What about the residential alarm call that turned out to be false (as many are) that you sent the deputy to and not the other call that turned tragically wrong?

Seriously, the 911 dispatch center retains its immunity by telling callers nothing and doing nothing–dispatching no one while they take an extra coffee break–than telling the panicked caller truthful information about what they are doing.

Now excuse me while I go pay my taxes.

2 Mannie 12.02.12 at 3:04 pm

Or you dispatch every cat-in-tree as a Code 3 emergency. Same thing. Get in line.

I’ve got to agree with Jason. Tactical judgments should be relatively immune from second guessing, other than by internal fact finders and training teams.

The dispatcher’s superiors have a duty to second guess calls like that, and to determine if the operator is following department standards. They also have a duty to review their training, and perhaps make this call the subject of a training seminar. Or not.

It must be acknowledged that it is the Citizen’s responsibility to defend himself. A remote operator on a telephone is a mighty imprecise instrument to determine tactical issues on the ground. You are responsible for your own defense. No one can protect you.

9-1-1 Help in minutes … when seconds count.

3 AMcA 12.03.12 at 1:48 pm

This is simply the continued erosion of sovereign immunity. Government is no longer different from private operators. The government is no longer “us”, the government is now a service provider and a “them” who can be sued for everything if fails to do. The notion that some undertakings for the public good are too dangerous to attach liability to . . . completely out the door.

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