Court Limits Liability of 911 Dispatchers

From Associated Press

Government 911 emergency dispatch agencies usually cannot be sued, even if they fail to respond to calls for help, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The seven justices, in settling a conflict between lower court rulings, said 911 operations generally are immune to lawsuits.

Justice Ming Chin wrote for the unanimous court that “there is no statutory provision declaring or defining a public agency’s duty of care with respect to handling 911 emergency calls.”


Harvey Wimer III, who represented the Regional Fire Protection Authority in San Bernardino County in the case, said local governments respond to thousands of emergency calls, and might go out of business if they could be sued. “The Legislature has recognized this,” he said.

The case that the justices tossed concerned a 3-year-old Barstow girl who was electrocuted three years ago while taking a bath. Her father called 911 and was repeatedly put on hold, said the family’s attorney, Charles Sneathern.

Emergency medical personnel never arrived, Sneathern said. A Barstow police officer, who listened to the call, responded and took the child to a local hospital.

The girl was revived at the hospital, but has severe brain damage and is confined to a wheelchair. The suit said the girl’s injuries might not have been as severe if San Bernardino County medical-rescue authorities had responded.

“They really didn’t respond to the call, other than to place them on a long hold, and then come back and ask the same information over and over,” Sneathern said.

Wimer said medical personnel did not arrive because the agency’s computer system could not locate the address, and the father refused to provide a cross street.


The justices said emergency response agencies could be sued if they acted in bad faith or were grossly negligent. The court wrote that the facts in this case did “not support a finding of gross negligence or bad faith.”