Indiana Court of Appeals Allows Wrongful Death Lawsuit for 911 Failure in Dispatching Medics to Wrong Address to Proceed

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion allowing a deceased woman’s estate to move forward in a wrongful death lawsuit arising from the operation of a county 911 system. In Howard Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t & Howard Cty. 911 Commc’ns v. Duke, Tammy Lynn Ford (“Ford”) called the Howard County 911 Dispatch from her cell phone, provided her address, and reported she could not breathe. According to the County’s standard operating procedures, dispatchers were supposed to verify a caller’s location and manually enter it into the computer. The two dispatchers who took Ford’s call did not correctly enter her address into the computer or verify her address, and as a result, medics were dispatched to the wrong address. Once medics finally arrived at the correct address, Ford had no pulse. She was subsequently pronounced dead at the hospital.

Derrick Duke and Dustin Duke, as co-personal representatives of the Estate of Tammy Lynn Ford (the “Ford Estate”), filed a lawsuit against the County alleging the County’s 911 delay caused Ford’s death and the County’s actions amounted to willful and wanton misconduct. Under Indiana law, governmental entities have immunity for losses resulting from the use of a 911 system, except to the extent of willful or wanton misconduct. Willful or wanton misconduct includes an intentional act done with reckless disregard of the natural and probable consequence of injury to a known person under circumstances known to the actor at the time, or an omission or failure to act when the actor has knowledge of the natural and probable consequence of injury and the actor’s opportunity to avoid the risk. To prove willful and wanton misconduct, a plaintiff must show (1) the defendant had knowledge of an impending danger or consciousness of a course of misconduct calculated to result in probable injury, and (2) the defendant’s conduct exhibited an indifference to the consequences of the defendant’s conduct. Typically, whether a defendant engaged in willful and wanton misconduct is a question of fact for the trier of fact to decide (e.g., a jury). However, in this case, the County filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the trial court should find as a matter of law that it did not engage in willful and wanton misconduct, and as such, was entitled to the 911 immunity. The trial court denied the County’s motion and the County appealed.

On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted that to succeed in its motion for summary judgment, the County was required to show that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether it engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. The County argued its dispatchers’ actions were not willful and wanton, but merely a simple mistake. However, the Ford Estate designated evidence in response showing that there had been prior reported problems with the 911 dispatch reported by the Kokomo Police Department and the Kokomo Fire Department and the dispatchers’ failure played a “big role” in Ford’s death. As such, the Indiana Court of Appeals found there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the County engaged in willful and wanton misconduct and the County was not entitled to the 911 immunity as a matter of law. The Court affirmed the trial court’s order denying the County’s motion and remanded the case for further proceedings.

You can read the full opinion here.

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