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Can I Sue a 911 Dispatcher?

You may have a claim against a 911 dispatcher, but you'll face an uphill battle. In general, people don't owe each other a duty to help in an emergency. That goes for 911 call centers as well. And in most states, 911 dispatchers and first responders are immune from civil liability for negligence.

But if you can show that they were grossly negligent, acted willfully or wantonly, or hurt you intentionally, they lose their immunity. You may be able to recover, depending on which state you were in.

Cases against 911 dispatchers are hard to win. If you're considering a lawsuit, you may wish to consult an experienced personal injury attorney. Act quickly so that the recordings of your emergency calls and other possible evidence are not lost.

History of 911 Services

In 1967, a Presidential Commission recommended a single nationwide phone number to report emergencies of all sorts. That became 911. On February 16, 1968, State Rep. Rankin Fite reportedly made the first 911 call in Haleyville, Alabama.

Times have changed greatly since. Emergency services, which include, among others, the fire department, city police department, and county sheriff, have had to adapt to cell phones, text messages, and internet calls. They're now also able to provide services to the hearing and visually impaired. Now, the technology exists to enable dispatchers, even with the most limited information, to locate most callers and send first responders in times of need.

But sometimes they make mistakes. And the results can be horrifying.

An Example of a 911 Call Gone Wrong

Let's use an example. Suppose a mom collapses in a kitchen. Her five-year-old dials 911. The emergency operator thinks it's a prank and hangs up. The child calls again. The operator again hangs up.

Dad comes home that evening and finds mom unresponsive on the kitchen floor. He dials 911. They immediately send emergency medical services. Once they arrive, they determine that Mom had a stroke. Thankfully, she survives but has a long road of rehab ahead before she is fully functional again. If EMS had gotten there earlier — like when the child first called — mom would have had a much better outcome.

Can Dad sue the police dispatcher?

Negligence Claim

To sue someone, you must have a legal claim against them. If you wanted to sue someone for not doing something or for doing something wrong, you would need to establish negligence.

Although state laws vary slightly, a negligence claim generally requires you to prove the following:

The court decides whether you owe someone a duty of care. If you do, the duty is to act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances. What is reasonable depends on the situation. This is for the jury to decide.

Causation is split into two parts. The first, cause in fact, requires there to be a direct, traceable connection between the breach of duty and your injuries. The second, proximate cause, requires that your injuries be a foreseeable result of the breach.

The last element is damages. This is money to compensate you for your injuries.

This is negligence in a nutshell. If you want to get into the nuts and bolts, you can learn more about the basics of negligence.

No Duty to Rescue

Dad's problem isn't with the last three elements. It's with the first. In most states, 911 dispatchers don't owe a duty of care to members of the public. That may seem wrong and unfair, but that is the law.

Exception: Assumption of a Duty

In some states, a 911 dispatcher might create a duty of care by “assuming a duty." This might occur, for example, if during the 911 call, the dispatcher expressly agrees to send emergency assistance, reassures the caller that EMS has been sent, and then sends the first responders to the wrong address.

They become responsible (that is, assume a duty) because they agreed to provide help and did so. By sending assistance to the wrong address, the argument goes, the dispatcher failed to act with reasonable care and breached the duty they assumed.

Exception: Special Relationship

In certain cases, a judge might find that a 911 dispatcher employed by the state owed a duty of care because the state is in a special relationship with the injured person. A special relationship generally exists if the state has control over that person.

For example, a person in the custody of law enforcement may be in a special relationship with the state. The state would owe them a duty. That duty would require the police officer to act with reasonable care. So, if that person needed emergency services, for example, the police would have to call for an ambulance.

Sovereign Immunity

You might think that negligence looks easy to prove. But there is a major obstacle when trying to recover from a 911 dispatcher: sovereign immunity.

The rule is that the state gets to decide if, when, and how you can sue it. All states have waived sovereign immunity to at least some extent, which means you can bring certain cases in certain courts. But the state gets to decide which cases and which courts.

In most states, 911 dispatchers—regardless of whether they are employed by the state—are immune from most negligence claims. The reasoning behind immunity is the belief that, to do their jobs in good faith, dispatchers can't worry about having to second-guess their every action.

Sovereign immunity is a complicated area of the law. Look here if you want to learn more about sovereign immunity.

What's the practical effect of immunity? In most cases, you won't be able to recover against a 911 dispatcher.

Exceptions to Immunity

But that doesn't mean you have no chance. There are at least three exceptions to immunity.

Gross Negligence

The first exception is for gross negligence. Imagine the degree of thought behind an action in terms of a sliding scale. On the far left of the scale is negligence, which is simple carelessness. On the far right is intent. That is, you meant to do the act. Gross negligence falls in between those two.

To make out a claim of gross negligence, you must show not that the dispatcher simply made a mistake, even if that mistake results in a tragedy, but that the person made a really, really big mistake. A common example might be speeding through an area with a lot of pedestrian traffic.

How big of a mistake is a “really, really big mistake"? That's determined by state law, and state laws vary dramatically. You could speak to a local personal injury attorney to better understand what your state's requirements are and whether you might have a claim of gross negligence.

Willful or Wanton Misconduct

The second exception is for willful or wanton misconduct. Back to our sliding scale. Willful or wanton misconduct falls between gross negligence and intent.

The words states use to describe willful or wanton misconduct also vary. But it's essentially an action done with “extreme indifference" to a known risk. An example might be speeding through a crosswalk in an area with a lot of pedestrian traffic while you're eating a burger, talking on the phone, and putting on makeup.

Intentional Misconduct

The third exception is for intentional misconduct. You knew what you were doing, and you meant to do it.

Intent is pretty straightforward, and states are more consistent about what that means. An example might be speeding through a crosswalk, knowing full well that you might hit pedestrians.

A 911 dispatcher who intends to cause harm loses immunity and may be able to be sued for any number of civil wrongs, including, for example, intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Civil Rights Violations

Having said all of that, there may be a rare situation in which you might have a civil rights action against the 911 dispatcher. State and federal law protect certain groups of people from being discriminated against. These groups are called “protected classes." These classes include race, sex, gender, and religion, among others.

If you're a member of a protected class and believe a 911 dispatcher discriminated against you because of it, you may be able to sue them for violating your civil rights. An experienced civil rights attorney could give you legal advice about whether you are a member of a protected class and if you might have a valid civil rights claim.

If You Believe You Have a Claim Against a 911 Dispatcher, Consult a Lawyer

As you can see, cases against 911 dispatchers can get quite complex. They are challenging to win. If you believe you may have a claim for injuries you or a loved one suffered, you should consider consulting with an experienced personal injury lawyer. Many offer a free consultation before you need to agree to an attorney-client relationship with a law firm.

You may want to contact a lawyer quickly. States limit the time in which you can bring a lawsuit for personal injuries. You'll also want to make sure the evidence of your 911 calls is not destroyed before you can take action.

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