Court Clarifies Duty of Ambulance Dispatcher in Dropped 911 Call

When a caller dials 911 to report an emergency, it is not uncommon for the operator to transfer the caller to the local service provider that is best suited to respond to the incident. For instance, a caller who reports an auto accident can expect to be connected with the nearest ambulance service. In the case of Willis v. Rapides Parish Communications District, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal examined the duty owed by an ambulance dispatcher when a transfer does not go through.

Johnny Willis was involved in a single-car accident on La. Hwy. 488 just outside of Oak Hill. The crash was discovered by a passer-by, Shirley Ponthieux, who called 911. The operator for the Rapides Parish Communications District (RPCD) answered her call, contacted the fire department, and then attempted to transfer her directly to Acadian Ambulance because of another incoming call. The operator did not think that taking the other call would affect the transfer, but in fact it failed and Ponthieux was cut off. Because of the phone confusion and because the fire department could not obtain a cellular signal to call Acadia Ambulance when it arrived on the scene, an ambulance did not arrive until approximately an hour later. Sadly, Mr. Willis died at the hospital. His wife, Carleen Willis, filed suit against RPCD and Acadian Ambulance. Her claim against Acadian cited its failure to “receive and respond to the emergency transmission” and that it “failed to establish and utilize a reliable communications system for the receipt of emergency transmissions.” The trial judge granted Acadian Ambulance’s motion for summary judgment, holding that it does not owe a duty to an accident victim until it actually receives a call requesting ambulance service.

On appeal, Willis argued that Acadian Ambulance owed a duty to her husband to properly advise the RPCD of how to communicate with its dispatcher. Further, she cited a letter that Acadian had previously sent to the 911 office in Rankin County, Mississippi that explained the procedures that the 911 operators were to follow. Namely, an operator should remain on the line until Acadian Ambulance answered the call in order for the transfer to be completed, and further should briefly inform the Acadian Ambulance dispatcher of the nature of the call before disconnecting. The court disagreed that the lack of a similar letter to RPCD indicated Acadian’s failure to exercise reasonable care. In fact, the court could point to “no statutory or jurisprudential principles that support the imposition of [a] duty” on Acadian Ambulance “to properly train the employees of the RPCD in the use of the RPCD equipment to communicate with Acadian Ambulance.” Imposing such a duty, in the view of the court, would be inappropriate under the duty-risk analysis favored by the Louisiana Supreme Court. As soon as the Acadian dispatcher actually received a call that an ambulance was needed, he promptly sent one; this met the duty imposed under the law. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Acadian Ambulance from the case.

As this appeal was taken following the trial court’s dismissal of Acadian Ambulance from the case, it is not clear what resulted from her action against RPCD which presumably continued following this judgment. The court’s decision to affirm the dismissal of Acadian Ambulance illustrates the flexibility of law to determine liability when speculation exists and demonstrates just how complex and difficult civil trials can be for plaintiffs and defendants alike.

If you believe you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can help you identify the responsible parties and obtain the recovery you deserve.