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Widow Sues Over 911 Call Response

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wife of a 35-year-old Escondido man who was fatally stabbed last September has sued two North County fire departments, the county and others, claiming the county’s emergency medical response was inadequate before he bled to death.

Had county 911 dispatchers not bungled the call, as attorney Thor O. Emblem claims on behalf of his client, Earl C. Hamilton might have been saved by the time he arrived at the trauma center at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.

Instead, Hamilton bled to death because he was not taken to the hospital until 45 minutes after the first 911 call was made, Emblem said.

Hamilton and a neighbor, John Lane, were both stabbed by Larry Wayne Smith last Sept. 5. Smith attacked Lane, who was inside Smith’s home in the 600 block of North Avenue, just north of the Escondido city limits. After Lane fled to a neighbor’s house for help, Smith went the other direction, stabbing Hamilton in his own home. When the assailant fled to a nearby park, Hamilton, alone and bleeding from the chest and shoulder, stumbled to yet another neighbor’s home.

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Both neighbors called 911, Emblem said, but when the second neighbor called about the Hamilton stabbing, the sheriff’s dispatcher said the call already had been reported and help was on the way, then hung up.

The problem, Emblem maintains in his lawsuit on behalf of Hamilton’s widow, Lisa Hamilton, is that the sheriff’s dispatcher apparently didn’t realize the second call was reporting not the first stabbing victim, but the second.

Lane is recovering from his injuries. Smith was found not guilty by reason of insanity after standing trial on a murder charge in Vista Superior Court and was committed to Patton State Hospital in June.

Had the 911 dispatcher more fully understood the severity of the incident, before hanging up on the second caller, there would have been a more appropriate medical response, Emblem says--including at least two, and not one, ambulances.

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“The sheriff’s operator was told of one severely injured victim and that the perpetrator was next door stabbing everyone in the neighbor’s house,” the lawsuit alleged, referring to the first call to 911 involving the first victim, Lane.

“Notwithstanding this knowledge, the 911 emergency call operator failed to communicate to the main emergency medical dispatch center at Rancho Santa Fe the severeness of the type of injuries or the fact that there were multiple victims who required emergency medical services, or request the services of LifeFlight,” according to the suit, which was filed Tuesday in Vista Superior Court.

“In reliance on the sheriff’s operator’s statement, ‘we have the call and help is on the way,’ the victim-two caller did not attempt to transport (Hamilton) to a trauma center or seek other services.”

In response to the 911 call, an ambulance--perhaps from as far away as Oceanside, Emblem says--and a fire truck from the Deer Springs Fire Department, which serves the north Escondido neighborhood where Hamilton lives, responded.

Emblem said 25 minutes lapsed between the 911 call and when the fire truck and ambulance crew arrived--at about the same time--and that, by the time sheriff’s deputies deemed the scene safe enough for them to approach, it was 45 minutes altogether before Hamilton arrived at Palomar Medical Center. He died 11 minutes later.

It was only after the first fire truck arrived at the scene that a second ambulance was requested, and LifeFlight was notified. The helicopter was put on standby but never flew to the scene.

“No trauma victim medical teams, including LifeFlight, were ever dispatched, and Earl Hamilton bled to death,” Emblem said. “Ambulance personnel are classified as emergency medical technicians. This sounds important, but they are neither trained nor equipped to handle trauma victims. Only LifeFlight and paramedics are qualified for trauma responses.”

Emblem said that, if the Deer Springs Fire Department doesn’t have paramedics, then paramedics should have been called in from the next nearest agency.

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But local officials say there are no such mutual-aid agreements among fire departments involving paramedic services, which are costly and reserved for the use of the residents of that particular department.

“We provide EMT (emergency medical technicians) but not paramedics,” said Deer Springs Capt. Jerry Caster. “And most departments don’t let their paramedics outside their jurisdiction. Any time there’s a trauma--say, a gunshot victim or a vehicle accident, we have to get LifeFlight, if they can fly in that weather, or an ambulance.”

Escondido Fire Department paramedic coordinator Neil Hobbs said his department sends paramedics outside the city only if there is a “mass casualty incident” being coordinated by the county’s disaster preparedness office, such as a plane crash or earthquake.

“In Escondido, we only have three paramedic units manned 24 hours a day, and if we have four heart attacks in a row, the first three will get paramedics and the fourth will get an ambulance. We can’t call San Diego or San Marcos to help,” he said.

Tony Albers, the chief deputy county counsel, said he could not respond to the lawsuit because he had not yet been served with it.


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