E-Alert Case Updates
District’s EMTs acting in an emergency during firefighter physical ability test protected by public duty doctrine
Allen v. District of Columbia
The decedent, Eric Allen, was a participant in the physical ability test (PAT) as part of his application to become a District of Columbia (“District”) firefighter. As part of the PAT, the participants’ vitals were taken before and after the PAT by on-scene emergency medical personnel (“EMTs”), retained by the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department (“FEMS”) for that purpose. Prior to the PAT, Allen had his vitals taken, which were normal. At the conclusion of the PAT run, however, Allen began to exhibit signs of illness. The FEMS personnel called for the EMTs, who had set up their equipment in a nearby schoolroom, who indicated that they needed to get their equipment, including oxygen tank, from their ambulance. When they arrived, Allen’s vitals were taken and he was given an EKG. At that point, he was designated a “Priority 3,” the lowest priority, but the EMTs indicated that Allen needed to go to the hospital. As there was an ambulance on the scene, a basic life support vehicle arrived and transported him to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. While enroute, his priority level was not changed and, as a result, Allen waited in the emergency waiting room for over an hour. His conditioned worsened and he was flown by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, where he died of acute exertional rhabdomyolysis.
Allen’s parents brought a survival and wrongful death suit based on negligence against the District, Greater Southeast Community Hospital and the doctors who attended Allen at the hospital. While the other defendants settled the claims against them, the District filed a motion to dismiss, which the court treated as a motion for summary judgment as discovery had been completed. The court concluded there was no “special relationship” that would exempt the case from the “public duty doctrine,” which rendered the District immune. The Plaintiffs appealed.
First, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reviewed whether the public duty doctrine applied. The Court initially noted “that this court has never addressed whether the public duty doctrine is applicable with respect to conduct by EMT personnel who are assigned to provide on-site vital-signs monitoring of firefighter candidates during administration of a PAT.” Allen, ___A.3d at 3. “The public duty doctrine ‘operates to shield the District and its employees from liability arising out of their actions in the course of providing public services.’” Allen, ___A.3d at 2. The existence of a “special relationship” between the emergency personnel and the citizen renders of the doctrine inapplicable. In holding that the public duty applied to the case, the Court noted that the EMTs stepped into their role as emergency responders when they were called to attend to Allen, and went to their ambulance to get the necessary equipment. These actions were outside the intended roll requested for the PAT, which was limited to taking vitals before and after the test. This roll as emergency responders was the type contemplated by the “public duty doctrine,” and therefore the District was immune.
The Court then determined that there was no special relationship between the District and Allen. In order to establish a special relationship, or “special duty,” “a plaintiff must allege and prove two things: (1) a direct or continuing contact between the injured party and a governmental agency or official, and (2) a justifiable reliance on the part of the injured party.” Allen, __A.3d at 4, citing Klahr v. District of Columbia, 576 A.2d 718, 720 (D.C.1990). The Court held that Allen, as a volunteer to the firefighter examinations, was similar to a 911 caller who emerges from the general public with whom emergency personnel had no special relationship. The Court dismissed the relationship between FEMS and Allen as ongoing and continuous, as it would result in holding that FEMS had a “special” relationship with all 100 recruits. The Court also held that the Plaintiffs had failed to show that Allen justifiably relied upon the EMTs in acting or failing to act in any way because of the presence of the EMTs. As such, the special relationship exception to the public duty doctrine did not apply and the claim against the District was barred. The Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in the District’s favor.
Judge Easterly filed a dissent chastising the Court for applying the public duty doctrine, and for determining issues of fact in a summary judgment motion. Judge Easterly noted that the application of the public duty doctrine, as implemented by the majority opinion, conflicted with the jurisprudence on the District’s sovereign immunity and greatly expanded the application of the public duty doctrine without justification. Judge Easterly requested that the opinion be revisited by the Court of Appeals en banc, to clarify the scope of the public duty doctrine, and evaluate if the doctrine should continue to be recognized in the District.
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