N.J. appeals court rules 911 operators can be sued for mistakes
The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported that a New Jersey state appeals court has ruled that 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers are not immune from being sued for failing to perform their duties.
The decision would have paved the way for the family of a slain Seton Hall University student to continue a lawsuit against the city of Newark, but the matter was settled before the three-judge panel issued its unanimous decision. "This case has good precedential effect for potential acts of 911 operators who mishandle calls," said Brian Levine, the attorney for the family of the student, Sohayla Massachi.
In 2007, the appellate court ruled Newark could be sued and was not exempt from the state’s Torts Claim Act, which lays out conditions under which someone who is wronged can sue. But weighing in on an issue it did not address in 2007, today's decision said the city was also not immune from liability under the state’s Telecommunications Act, which established the statewide 911 emergency system.
Attorneys for Newark argued the Telecommunications Act protected a public safety answering point (PSAP) like the communications center. But Levine contended — and the appellate panel agreed — the law protected against mechanical failures such as dropped calls or power outages, not against the mistakes of individual operators or dispatchers. "We hold that the immunity (the law) affords PSAPs and their employees is limited to negligence in the mechanical delivery of 911 services, such as errors or omissions in the operation, maintenance, design or performance of the 911 telephone equipment," Judge Linda Baxter wrote. "The immunity ... does not extend to the conduct at issue here, namely, the bungled response to an incoming 911 call."
The judges sent the case back for retrial on how a $5.5 million jury award should be distributed. A trial jury decided in 2008 that Newark was 75 percent negligent, Seton Hall was 15 percent responsible and its security firm, Argenbright Security, was 10 percent at fault. The appellate court said the jury should have been allowed to consider whether Massachi’s ex-boyfriend, Christopher Honrath, who shot and killed her before taking his own life, bore some responsibility.
Had the award been upheld, Newark would have been on the hook for $4.1 million. While the appellate case was pending, Levine said, Newark and the family settled out of court this spring, with the city agreeing to pay $1 million. The family settled with Seton Hall and Argenbright around 2007 for an undisclosed amount, he said.
Massachi, 23, an education major at Seton Hall who lived in Union Township, met Honrath, 24, on the internet and dated him briefly before obtaining a retraining order to keep him away from her. On May 10, 2000, Honrath forced Massachi into his Plymouth Laser as she walked alongside Seton Hall’s South Orange campus. After driving them to his apartment in Westfield, Honrath shot Massachi and then himself.
On two separate occasions that day, witnesses reported a man forcing a screaming woman into his car. Two of the witnesses said they told a campus security guard who said he couldn't do anything about the incident because it was off-campus and advised them to call South Orange police. The other witnesses, off-duty Essex County Sheriffs Officers Melissa Lester and Elwood Thompson, called 911 and the call was routed to the area’s 911 emergency communications center in Newark.
The court said that when 911 operator Debory Venable issued the alert, she mistakenly said the vehicle was a Chevrolet Blazer and did not tell police it was in motion. As a result, officers were directed to an incorrect location. Venable also did not keep the 911 caller on the line to track the location of the Laser.
From the license plate number provided by the witnesses, George Mike, a 911 dispatcher traced the car to Honrath and was able to obtain his address in Westfield. However, he did not issue a general alert to Newark police and neighboring municipalities and did not contact Westfield police.
For original posting, see: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/08/nj_court_rules_911_operators_c.html
- 9-1-1 magazine (via The Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com, Aug. 4, 2010)