Washington Court Holds Public Duty Rule Does Not Protect Seattle Medics Who Went to Wrong Address

The Court of Appeals of Washington has ruled that the public duty doctrine offers no liability protection to Seattle firefighters who responded to the wrong address for a cardiac arrest. The case involved a suit brought by Delaura and Fred Norg after Fred suffered a heart attack in 2017.

The facts as explained in the decision are as follows:

  • In the early morning hours of February 7, 2017, Delaura Norg awoke to find her husband, Fred, having a heart attack.
  • She called 911 at 4:42 am. Delaura gave the dispatcher the couple’s address: 6900 East Green Lake Way North unit 306.
  • The dispatcher alerted the Seattle Fire Department at 4:43 am and its emergency medical units at Station 16, three blocks away, immediately responded to the call.
  • The dispatcher told Delaura “they are on the way” and instructed her to begin CPR.
  • Despite receiving the correct address, the responding SFD units assumed they were being dispatched to a nursing home at 6720 East Green Lake Way North, four blocks away from the Norgs’ building.
  • The responders drove past the Norgs’ apartment and arrived at the nursing home at 4:46 am. They entered the nursing home and proceeded to apartment 306.
  • Meanwhile, the 911 dispatcher continued to assure a distraught Delaura that help would arrive imminently.
  • The dispatcher assured Delaura eight separate times that responders were arriving soon or had already arrived. Less than five minutes into the call, the dispatcher told Delaura that “they are at the building.”
  • Seven minutes in, the dispatcher stated “They’re coming up to your room now.” A minute later, he stated “they are coming up to your door now.”
  • Eleven minutes in, the dispatcher instructed Delaura not to leave her apartment to let the responders into the building and instead to remain with her husband doing chest compressions.
  • The dispatcher remained on the phone with Delaura for nearly 17 minutes.
  • The SFD units, after realizing their mistake, verified the address and arrived at the Norgs’ apartment at 4:58 am, fifteen minutes after they were dispatched.
  • Fred survived the heart attack but suffered an anoxic brain injury and sustained permanent cognitive and neurological deficits.
  • The Norgs filed this suit against the City in October 2018, alleging that the City was negligent in responding to Delaura’s 911 call and the resulting delay in administering emergency medical care aggravated his injuries.

The city moved for summary judgment based upon the public duty doctrine, while the Norgs sought summary judgment in their favor. The trial court denied the city’s motion and granted the Norgs’ motion for partial summary judgment. That prompted the city to appeal contending the public duty doctrine should be a complete bar to any recovery by the Norgs.

The court discussed the difficult history the public duty rule has had, as well as recent Washington Supreme Court case law that recognizes “a difference in the public duty doctrine context between ‘misfeasance’ and ‘nonfeasance.’” Under the new Washington case law, the public duty doctrine applies to cases involving nonfeasance (failure to act) but not to cases of misfeasance (negligence in acting).

The city argued that its medics may have been guilty of nonfeasance by failing to arrive at the correct address in a reasonable period of time, but because it was a failure to act the city should have the benefit of the public duty doctrine. The court disagreed:

  • There are two problems with this argument.
  • First, the City misunderstands the meaning of the words “misfeasance” and “nonfeasance.”
  • Misfeasance is “[a] lawful act performed in a wrongful manner.”
  • Nonfeasance is “[t]he failure to act when a duty to act exists.”
  • Responding to a call for emergency medical help but doing so in a negligent manner is performing a lawful act in a wrongful manner; it is not the failure to act.
  • Because the duty at issue in this case is not a public duty owed to the general public at large but is instead a common law duty to exercise reasonable care in providing emergency medical services, the public duty doctrine does not apply and the trial court did not err in so concluding.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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