Court Torpedos 911-Related Negligence Claim

Under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”), governmental entities are immune from lawsuits that arise from the “exercise and discharge” of their functions. There are a very few, specific exceptions to the GTLA listed in the statute. Due to this statutory immunity, making a case for negligence against a government agency can be quite difficult.

In Estate of Quinn v. Henderson, No. E2013-02398-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 13, 2014), plaintiff brought a wrongful death suit against both the Blount County fire department and the Blount County 911 center. The action arose out of an incident wherein the deceased’s boyfriend had set fire to her attached garage while the deceased was in the home. The deceased called 911, who then dispatched the fire department. Upon arriving at the scene, however, the fire department could not immediately act. Instead, they followed fire department protocol and waited for the domestic violence situation to be secured by the police before fighting the fire and entering the home. The deceased was removed from the home after it was secured, but died two days later from smoke inhalation.

The trial court granted summary judgment for 911 and the fire department based on the GTLA, finding that the entities “were engaged in planning functions, such that their actions were immune pursuant to the [GTLA].” The trial court further based its decision on the public duty doctrine and comparative fault. The appellate court affirmed, though it based its decision on different reasons. Instead of finding that the entities were engaged in planning functions, the Court of Appeals determined that both 911 and the fire department retained immunity because both negated essential elements of plaintiff’s claims.

Regarding the fire department, plaintiff claimed negligence because the first firefighter to arrive at the scene did not assist or rescue plaintiff, but instead waited for police to arrive, and that the response time (due to waiting for the scene to be secured) was unreasonable. The fire department presented evidence, however, that it acted appropriately and complied with the standard of care. Stating that “[t]he threshold question is whether immunity has been removed because the injury was caused by the negligent act or omission of a governmental employee acting within the scope of his or her employment,” the Court held that “[a]bsent a finding of negligence, governmental immunity still applies.” Accordingly, the Court found that the fire department did not breach its duty of care and the trial court rightly dismissed the claims against it. Likewise, regarding plaintiff’s claims that the 911 operator did not handle the call appropriately, did not communicate information to the fire department correctly, and should have stayed on the phone with the deceased, the Court determined that 911 had negated essential elements of plaintiff’s claims. First, 911 showed that the operator acted in accordance with procedures. Second, even if the operator had breached a duty, 911 showed that the alleged acts of negligence were not the cause in fact of the deceased’s injuries. As with the fire department, the Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment in favor of 911, although on different grounds from the trial court’s decision.

This case is a great reminder of the many challenges encountered when bringing a negligence claim against a governmental entity. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed that immunity was retained here, and since they based their decisions on different grounds, these courts illustrated that there are multiple ways government agencies are protected by the GTLA. While it is often still worthwhile and necessary to bring suit against such agencies, an attorney should carefully study the facts and keep in mind the provisions of the GTLA  (and the case law interpreting it) when filing such a case.