The parents of a Pennsylvania woman who died after attending an icy-water Polar Bear Plunge at the New Jersey shore are seeking to prove in court she may have been alive even as she was being pronounced dead by first responders who didn't examine her.
Jury selection is expected to begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Camden in the case of suburban Philadelphia resident Tracy Hottenstein, whose body was found near a pier in Sea Isle City on Feb. 15, 2009, hours after she'd spent the night celebrating with friends following the town's annual Polar Bear Plunge.
Hottenstein, of Conshohocken, was a 35-year-old marathon runner and sports enthusiast who worked as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, her parents' lawsuit says. She didn't take part in the plunge but fell off a pier into the water later.
Her death initially received wide publicity after authorities speculated it may have been the result of foul play. An autopsy later concluded she died from hypothermia, or a subnormal body temperature, complicated by acute alcohol intoxication.
Hottenstein's parents filed the lawsuit in 2011, alleging numerous claims including wrongful death and negligence. A judge dismissed claims against the town, its ambulance corps, several police officers, bars that served her drinks and a couple who served her alcohol in their home. The trial instead will focus on the actions of the trauma team that responded to the scene and the doctor in a hospital 20 miles away who pronounced her dead based on the team's report.
Attorneys for the doctor and the hospital didn't respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Charles and Elizabeth Hottenstein's lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, says paramedics from the trauma team operated by AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center didn't examine or try to treat their daughter but instead relied on two police officers who said they had been unable to find signs of a pulse. The officers roped off the area as a crime scene and didn't allow medics to get closer than 6 feet, the lawsuit says.
"AtlantiCare (Mobile Intensive Care Unit) medics took the information given them by police, i.e., that Ms. Hottenstein was deceased, instead of examining her and treating her for hypothermia, a condition that should have been immediately considered," it says.
The trauma team contacted Dr. Zaki Khebzou at the medical center in Atlantic City, and Khebzou pronounced Hottenstein dead about 10 minutes after the trauma team arrived at the scene, the lawsuit says. A victim of hypothermia can display no pulse or heartbeat but can be resuscitated with aggressive treatment, it says.
New Jersey-based attorney Barry Eichen, who has litigated wrongful-death cases but isn't involved in this one, said a body can stay in a hypothermic state with a faint pulse "for quite a long time." He said he was troubled by the fact the death pronouncement was made without the trauma team's examination of the body.
"If the doctor did that knowing that the EMT had no chance to view the body, I would think that doctor was playing fast and loose," he said.
In court filings, Khebzou has denied his actions were "a substantial factor in Hottenstein's death." But the judge denied his motion to have the case against him thrown out, writing his pronouncement of death "may have been premature and cut off Tracy's opportunity to receive medical care."