Wrongful Death Suit Against Two Florida Fire Departments Dismissed

A wrongful death lawsuit filed against Polk County Fire Rescue and the Winterhaven Fire Department for a 2014 heart attack response, has been dismissed. John Hamilton suffered a heart attack in May 2014 in his mother’s house. Both Polk County Fire Rescue and the Winterhaven Fire Department responded, but upon arrival personnel concluded Hamilton had already passed away.

Despite the fact that Hamilton’s mother “told the 911 operator before help arrived that Hamilton was dead and it was too late,” the family filed complaints with the county claiming fire personnel “failed to administer life-saving care to Hamilton.” However, they waited until 2018 to file suit.

The suit alleged “Fourteenth Amendment violations under the federal constitution, wrongful death, professional and common law negligence, and negligent training.” It named Polk County, the City of Winterhaven, and four individual firefighters as defendants.

The case followed an extended pre-trial discovery phase with both sides wrestling over whether medics actually took and kept an EKG strip, the credibility of expert witnesses, and the accuracy the the plaintiffs’ complaint (5 amended complaints!). The fire departments and firefighters raised a number of defenses, including:

  • Lack of standing by the plaintiffs (the family members were not the proper parties to sue under state law for wrongful death because they had not been designated as Hamilton’s personal representative);
  • Statute of limitations (in Florida, wrongful death lawsuits must be brought within two years of the death);
  • Lack of causation (the plaintiffs through their designated expert witness could not establish beyond mere speculation that had medics performed CPR immediately upon their arrival, Hamilton would have survived); and
  • Qualified immunity (for 14th Amendment claims).

Earlier this month, United States District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle granted summary judgment to the fire departments and firefighters on each of these defenses, and ordered the case closed. Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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