Judge guts snow-death lawsuit against Pittsburgh

AP News
Posted: Apr 07, 2011 3:58 PM
Judge guts snow-death lawsuit against Pittsburgh

A federal judge threw out major portions of a lawsuit filed by the family of a Pittsburgh man who died at home after waiting 30 hours for help despite 10 calls to 911 during a record-setting snowstorm.

Three ambulances failed to reach Curtis Mitchell's home. Paramedics had refused to walk to Mitchell and suggested he take a bus.

Mitchell, 50, died in February 2010 from heart disease complicated by a fatty liver. One city paramedic was fired, though a labor arbitrator has since ordered she be reinstated, and three others were suspended over their responses.

Mitchell's surviving adult children sued last year, claiming his civil rights were violated when he endured agonizing stomach pain while waiting for help, and claiming he might have been saved had he gotten to a hospital. They argued that Mitchell lost his life and was robbed of his due process rights because of what their attorney, Alan Perer, last year called "an outrageous breakdown of the entire EMS and 911 system from the top-down."

U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster, in a ruling late Wednesday, dismissed all federal claims in the family's lawsuit. Lancaster, agreeing with city attorneys, ruled that the government cannot take life, liberty or property without due process but that the due process clause itself is "not ... a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security."

City law department attorneys didn't immediately comment.

Perer told The Associated Press on Thursday that the ruling essentially guts the lawsuit, because the city can claim immunity to many of the remaining state law claims and that individual paramedics or public safety officials _ unless they're indemnified by the city _ don't have deep enough pockets to make it worthwhile.

Lancaster ruled that paramedics' failure to reach Mitchell didn't restrict his ability to seek other medical help or another ride to the hospital. He agreed with previous 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinions that found government agents aren't liable for harm unless they actually restrain a person from doing something to help themselves.

"The whole thing is sickening, it really is, that in our society this is the law. Some of the other (circuit court) jurisdictions aren't as conservative," Perer said. "It's not the kind of government responsibility and accountability that citizens are entitled to but, unfortunately, that's the federal law."

The lawsuit claims the first two ambulance crews couldn't cross a small bridge near Mitchell's home and got no closer than a quarter mile away during the storm that dumped 21 inches of snow on the city.

Instead of walking to Mitchell's home, the crews repeatedly insisted that Mitchell walk to them or take a bus. The most inflammatory response came from paramedic Josie Dimon who was recorded on a dispatch tape cursing after Mitchell told 911 operators he was in too much pain to walk down the steps from his home to reach the second ambulance.

"I ain't waiting all day for him," Dimon said. "I mean, what the (expletive)? This ain't no cab service."

City Public Safety Director Michael Huss has apologized to Mitchell's family and his live-in girlfriend, who made most of the 911 calls. Huss has appealed the labor arbitrator's February ruling to reinstate Dimon.

Huss isn't among those being sued because Perer said Mitchell's children, Theresa Thornton and Jeremiah C. Mitchell, both in their 30s, wanted to focus on those they believe were directly responsible for his death.

Perer and Paul Ellis Jr., another attorney on the case, said they haven't decided whether to appeal Lancaster's ruling. One option would be to appeal the federal claims to the 3rd Circuit, while letting the state law claims play out in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, where Lancaster ordered them to be heard.

"This case is far from over," Ellis said. "While Judge Lancaster's ruling is discouraging, we're absolutely committed to getting justice for the Mitchell family."