Missouri Court Rules that “True Emergency” Required for EMTs to Claim Immunity

In a troubling decision issued on September 21, 2010, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that immunity protection for emergency responders will not protect them if they mistakenly conclude a patient is not seriously ill. The background of the case is important to understanding just how unsettling the decision is.

First off, Missouri courts recognize the concept of official immunity. The court decision explains official immunity as “a judicially-created doctrine designed to protect public employees from liability for allegedly negligent acts committed during their performance of official duties.” It is a bit different from the more common sovereign immunity and statutory immunity that applies to many fire service organizations in other states.

Second, the facts of the case: on July 10, 2008 Anthony Thomas called 911 complaining of chest pains and difficulty breathing. Community Fire Protection District dispatched an ambulance to the call. EMT Michael Brandt, and paramedic James Loehrer examined Thomas, concluded he was suffering from acid reflux, recommended an over-the-counter treatment, and left after just 15 minutes.

The next morning, Thomas called 911 again, still complaining of difficulty breathing and chest pains. This time a Community Fire Protection District ambulance staffed two different personnel responded and transported him to the DePaul Health Center, where he arrested and died.

Thomas’s children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Brandt, Loehrer and the Community Fire Protection District alleging negligence. The suit was filed in the Circuit Court for St. Louis County, who granted summary judgment to the firefighter-defendants on the grounds of official immunity. The Thomas children appealed.

In reversing the trial court, the Missouri Court of Appeals stated “Respondents are not immune from Appellant’s wrongful death action based on official immunity. Official immunity is available to publicly-employed emergency responders only if they are acting in a true emergency situation.”

The court did not elaborate on the hair they were splitting, which leads me to believe they may have missed a very important point: A fire department ambulance responded with “lights and siren” on an emergency run, for a patient who was legitimately having a real medical emergency, yet according to the court the incident was somehow transformed into a non-emergency because personnel misdiagnosed the patient… and it was that misdiagnosis that both made the firefighters liable AND excluded them from liability protection. WOW!!!

If the court recognized the subtlety, they totally glossed over it in the decision. Here is a copy. Download ThomasDecision.jsp

The case now goes back to the trial court, unless it is appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. Perhaps the MSC will be able to square this issue away. The good news is it will have no applicability outside of Missouri.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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