Houston Stretcher Tipover Case Dismissed By Appellate Court

The City of Houston has prevailed in a lawsuit brought by the family of an elderly woman who died after a stretcher tipped over. Elizabeth Dott, 94, died 8 days after she sustained head injuries from the fall in July, 2020.

Dott’s daughter, Kathy Denby, filed suit against the city contending that the EMS personnel were negligent and grossly negligent in handling the stretcher. The facts as explained in the decision are as follows:

  • Kathy Denby’s mother, Elizabeth Dott, was 94 years old in July 2020.
  • When Dott experienced breathing difficulties, Denby’s husband called 9-1-1 to transport Dott to an emergency room for medical care.
  • After an evaluation, the emergency medical technicians who had been dispatched to Dott’s home decided to transport her to a nearby hospital for further evaluation and care.
  • The EMTs unloaded a stretcher from the ambulance, which was parked on the street near Dott’s inclined driveway.
  • The EMTs rolled the stretcher up the sloped driveway to the front door.
  • Dott, who was alert and responsive, was strapped onto the stretcher in a seated, upright position.
  • The EMTs rolled the stretcher, which was adjusted to an elevated position, down the driveway.
  • When the stretcher approached the bottom of the driveway, the EMTs began rolling the stretcher sideways before clearing the uneven tip of the curb.
  • Both Dott, who was strapped to the stretcher, and the stretcher fell sideways onto the ground. Dott suffered a broken thumb and a bleeding head wound, and she became unresponsive.
  • She was transported to a hospital with a trauma center rather than the nearby hospital originally intended. Dott never regained consciousness, and she died eight days later.

The city claimed it was entitled to governmental immunity on the claim, and sought to have the case dismissed. The trial court denied the city’s request, prompting an appeal to the First District Court of Appeals of Texas. The Court of Appeals agreed with the city, explaining its reasoning as follows:

  • Governmental immunity, like sovereign immunity from which it is derived, exists to protect political subdivisions, such as municipalities, from suit and liability for monetary damages. Governmental immunity deprives a trial court of subject matter jurisdiction over lawsuits in which the State’s political subdivisions have been sued unless immunity is waived by the Legislature.
  • The Legislature has expressly waived immunity to the extent provided by the Texas Tort Claims Act.
  • As relevant to this appeal, the TTCA generally waives governmental immunity for “personal injury and death so caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.”
  • Despite the general waiver of governmental immunity, the Legislature has provided exclusions and exceptions from the applicability of the TTCA
  • The statutory exception at issue in this appeal is section 101.062, the “9-1-1 Emergency Service” exception, which provides that the TTCA applies to a claim against a public agency that arises from an action of an employee of the public agency or a volunteer under direction of the public agency and that involves providing 9-1-1 service or responding to a 9-1-1 emergency call only if the action violates a statute or ordinance applicable to the action.
  • The City argues that the 9-1-1 Emergency Service exception to the waiver of immunity applies here because Denby called 9-1-1 seeking treatment and transportation for her mother, who was experiencing difficulty breathing, and the transportation of Dott down the driveway was part of the EMTs’ response to the 9-1-1 call. Denby argues that the 9-1-1 Emergency Service exception does not apply in this case. She asserts that section 101.062(b) only applies to an action involving “providing 9-1-1 service or responding to a 9-1-1 emergency call,” and “[w]hen the EMTs wheeled Mrs. Dott down her driveway, they were not acting under the pressure of an emergency response.”
  • We conclude that Denby’s claim arose from the action of employees “responding to a 9-1-1 emergency call.”
  • In this case, Denby alleged that the culpable action of the EMTs was the improper use of the stretcher to transport Dott from the house to the ambulance. Denby argues that the EMTs violated section 773.009 of the Texas Health and Safety Code and that, in light of this violation and the language of section 101.062(b), the City is not entitled to immunity under the 9-1-1 Emergency Services exception to the TTCA.
  • We conclude that the City retained immunity under section 101.062(b) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
  • We hold that the trial court erred by denying the City’s motion for summary judgment.
  • We reverse the trial court’s order denying the City’s motion for summary judgment, and we render judgment dismissing Denby’s suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Because of this disposition, it is not necessary to consider the City’s remaining arguments.

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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