Over 225 individuals have notified the City of New York of their intentions to file suit over blizzard-related losses, most for property issues, seven for personal injury, and at least two for wrongful death due to alleged slow response to 911 calls for medical help.
On January 19, 2011, CBS New York reported Family Files Wrongful Death Suit Against City For Blizzard Death, then on January 25, 2nd Blizzard-Related Wrongful Death Suit Filed Against NYC. In the first matter, it is alleged that it took 911 emergency services nearly three hours to respond to a call for help; in the other matter the family waited an hour-and-a-half for services. In that time, both the subject of the calls passed away.
Both families are represented by attorney Sanford Rubenstein, who has a reputation for forcing settlements in high profile cases.
Both cases seek $20 million in damages, blaming the police, fire, transportation, sanitation and emergency medical services for the deaths. Mr. Rubenstein is quoted "It is inexcusable for there to be a delay of an hour-and-a-half in a life and death situation...".
Of course, this is not the first time 911 emergency services have been sued for failing to timely respond to a call for help. The seminal case appears to be De Long v. County of Erie, a 1983 New York Court of Appeals decision. In that wrongful death case, a woman was murdered by a burglar, after she had called the 911 service to report someone breaking into her house. The dispatcher mistakenly noted and sent help to the wrong address, crucial because the correct address was only a block and a half from the local police station.
De Long contained a discussion of whether Erie County had a "special relationship with and duty towards" the 911 caller, sufficient to hold it liable for negligence.
Under the circumstances of the case, Justice Wachtler, found a "special duty" and declared "Whether a special duty has been breached is generally a question for the jury to decide. But it should be emphasized that whether the municipality has acted reasonably depends upon the circumstances of the particular case".
The circumstances of these two particular cases are that the emergency services were slowed because the roads were paralyzed due to the severe weather experienced in New York City on the dates in question.
Wachler's decision continues: "When an emergency service is involved it must be recognized that the circumstances are often quite demanding and that some mistakes will occur, even when the service is well organized and conscientiously administered. Allowance must be made for this and although any error, however slight, may have dire consequences it will not always justify an award for damages".
Given the import and tone of the language used by the Court, it is clear to me that Mr. Rubenstein will have a difficult task demonstrating that the City did not act reasonably given the extreme weather conditions that emergency personnel had to deal with to reach those persons in need of their services.
Chances are that they did the best they could under the circumstances.