Children sue over snowbound Pa. man’s death during snowstorm despite multiple 911 calls

By Joe Mandak, AP
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Family sues over Pa. man’s unheeded 911 calls

PITTSBURGH — The children of a man who died after waiting 30 hours for help despite 10 calls to 911 during a record-setting February snowstorm are suing, saying his death happened because of a total breakdown of the emergency medical system.

The lawsuit filed Thursday claims the city, the county dispatch center and the various paramedics and emergency medical services brass are responsible for the Feb. 7 death of Curtis Mitchell, 50.

Mitchell died at home after ambulance crews didn’t reach him despite calls his live-in girlfriend, Sharon Edge, made to 911 as a storm dumped nearly two feet of snow on the city.

One paramedic was fired, and three others were suspended over Mitchell’s death. The lawsuit claims he endured agonizing stomach pain while waiting for help.

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams later determined Mitchell died of natural causes — heart disease complicated by a fatty liver — though toxicology tests confirmed that a poor blood supply caused Mitchell’s intestines to swell and likely led to the discomfort he suffered.

“This case represented an outrageous breakdown of the entire EMS and 911 system from the top-down,” attorney Alan Perer said at a news conference Thursday.

Mitchell’s family contends he might have lived had he gotten help sooner.

The 51-page lawsuit was filed in Allegheny County by Mitchell’s children, Theresa Thornton, 29, and Jeremiah C. Mitchell, 31. They attended the news conference but did not address the media.

The lawsuit claims three ambulance crews couldn’t drive to Mitchell’s home because of snow-clogged roads. But, instead of paramedics walking to Mitchell’s home, the suit said the crews repeatedly insisted he walk at least one block to them and even suggested he take a bus at one point.

The most inflammatory response came from since-fired paramedic Josie Dimon who was recorded on a dispatch tape cursing after Mitchell told 911 operators he was in too much pain to walk down the steps from his home to reach the second ambulance.

“He ain’t (expletive) comin’ down, and I ain’t waiting all day for him. I mean, what the (expletive)? This ain’t no cab service,” Dimon said.

When Mitchell couldn’t walk to the ambulances, the ambulances left. The suit names the city of Pittsburgh; Allegheny County’s Department of Emergency Services; three top EMS officials; Dimon; three EMS supervisors; and a 911 dispatcher.

In addition to the paramedics’ response, the family claims 911 dispatchers didn’t share information about the previous calls and realize that the situation with Mitchell’s health was worsening.

“It was just a total failure of the system and a lack of training and knowledge by both EMS and 911 people,” Perer said. “It was just sort of a perfect storm of errors and a tragic failure.”

City Public Safety Director Michael Huss had previously apologized to Mitchell’s family and is not being sued. Huss didn’t immediately return a call for comment Thursday, but has previously said it was up to the paramedics to find a way to reach Mitchell — noting that other paramedics went above and beyond to reach others stranded in the storm.

“We tried to focus on the actual people who, in our opinion, exhibited gross negligence and really willful misconduct,” Perer said. “Some of the actions of the individual employees were really outrageous.”

Perer called the taxi service comment “totally over the line of human decency.”

Although a state law exempts the city from certain types of claims, and otherwise caps its liability at $500,000, Perer said plaintiffs can get more if they prove “gross negligence and willful misconduct.”

“We believe in this particular case there’s no legal protection for them,” Perer said.

The attorney said the county never responded to requests to negotiate a settlement, and that the city “completely ignored and stonewalled the fact that a resident of this city died as a result of these failures and these breakdowns.”

He added: “It is a shame that the city and county are going to use taxpayer’s money to dry to defend something that is indefensible.”

Robert Burgoyn, a county attorney, said the county doesn’t comment on litigation, but Pittsburgh solicitor Daniel Regan confirmed the city did reject a settlement demand, without giving details.

“The city’s reviewing the complaint and it would be improper to make any further comment,” Regan said.

Paramedics union president Anthony Weinmann didn’t return an e-mailed request for comment.

Robert Peirce, another attorney representing Mitchell’s children, said, “The family wants to make sure this never occurs again … so that no other family has to go through what they’re going through now.”

Perer said Sharon Edge wasn’t included in the suit because it doesn’t appear she meets the requirements to be regarded as Mitchell’s common-law wife under Pennsylvania law.

“We’ve spoken to her attorney and we’ll work together with her and do the right thing by her if we are successful in this case,” Perer said.

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