Court Rules Fire Department Not Immune From Liability For EMS Gross Negligence

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that governmental immunity does not protect a municipal fire department from liability for gross negligence in an EMS related wrongful death suit. The case was brought by the family of Patrick Antonio Clemons-Hodges, against the City of Detroit, the Detroit Fire Department, and two EMTs.

The facts as explained by the court:

  • In the early morning hours of January 4, 2019, 30-year-old Patrick Antonio Clemons-Hodges thought he was suffering a heart attack.
  • He called emergency services, and defendants Julian Holts and Michael Morgan were dispatched to Clemons-Hodges’ home at around 4:00 a.m. to assist him.
  • Upon their arrival, however, they did not immediately take Clemons-Hodges’ vital signs, and instead encouraged him to stand up and walk because they believed he was too large for them to lift.
  • Clemons-Hodges did so with the help of a walker.
  • When Clemons-Hodges eventually laid down on a gurney, he slumped over and became unresponsive.
  • Morgan and Holts proceeded to load Clemons-Hodges into the ambulance, connected him to a cardiac-monitoring device, and drove to DMC Sinai Grace Hospital.
  • Along the way, the cardiac monitor alerted that CPR and other life-saving measures should be started immediately, but the data recorded by the device showed that no such treatment was performed before arriving at the hospital.
  • Clemons-Hodges was pronounced dead at the hospital after resuscitation efforts failed.

The suit accused the EMTs of gross negligence and claimed that the city was vicariously liable for their behavior. The city moved to dismiss the suit claiming that delivering emergency medical services was governmental function for which it was protected by governmental immunity. The trial court disagreed, prompting the city to appeal.

Quoting from the Court of Appeals’ decision:

  • The City argues on appeal that it is immune from plaintiff’s claims under the governmental tort liability act (GTLA) and the emergency medical services act (EMSA). We disagree.
  • By its plain terms, [the GTLA] provides broad immunity for governmental units, like the City, engaged in a governmental function unless an exception to that immunity is provided for in the act.
  • Plaintiff is seeking to hold the City liable for medical care that its employees, Holts and Morgan, provided to Clemons-Hodges while Clemons-Hodges was a patient.
  • Such a claim clearly falls into the medical-care exception to governmental immunity provided in [the GTLA] and so the immunity provided … is inapplicable.
  • In short, the GTLA “does not grant immunity” to the City in this case.
  • Yet this is not the end of the analysis. Even though the GTLA does not provide the City immunity in this case, the EMSA still may.
  • By its terms, the EMSA provides immunity to a governmental unit like the City for the acts or omissions of its paramedics unless the act or omission is the result of gross negligence.
  • Accordingly, governmental immunity under the GTLA does not apply because plaintiff is seeking to hold the City liable for medical care that its employees provided to Clemons-Hodges while Clemons-Hodges was a patient, and liability may be imposed under the EMSA because plaintiff alleges that the City’s emergency medical workers were grossly negligent in their treatment of Clemons-Hodges.
  • The trial court therefore properly denied the City’s motion for summary disposition on grounds of governmental immunity.

The case will now return to the trial court to determine whether in fact the EMTs were grossly negligent in their assessment of Clemons-Hodges, walking him rather than carrying him, and failing to start CPR as alleged.

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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