N.J. SC: Statute provides immunity to 911 operators

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 16, 2012, 12:15pm


TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - The New Jersey Supreme Court says a state statute does provide immunity to 911 operators and their public-entity employers for negligence in delivering 911 services, including the mishandling of emergency calls.

The Court, in its March 8 decision, reversed the ruling of the state's appellate division.

The appellate division had reversed the decision of a trial court, which had dismissed the claims against the city of Jersey City and 911 operators Laura Jean Petersen and Brenda Murdaugh-Jones.

The trial court had found that the defendants were protected by statutes, including the state's 911 immunity act, and that there was insufficient evidence of wanton and willful conduct needed to vault the immunity statute.

The appellate division, however, reasoned that only a subsection of the immunity act was potentially applicable, but it applies only after an investigation is underway.

No investigation commenced, the court said, until the nine-year-old boy in the case, Paris, was found alive.

Shortly after 12 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2005, Dwayne Wilson brutally stabbed his sister Marcia and her three children, including Paris, in their Jersey City apartment at 207 Wegman Parkway, also known as 185 Martin Luther King Drive.

Paris lapsed in and out of consciousness, spoke to his siblings at one point, and on the morning of Sept. 21, gathered enough strength to call 911. Police later found him wounded, and his mother and siblings dead.

At the time of the attack, Anthony Andrews, who was temporarily living with his sister in an apartment across the hall, called 911. The call was routed to a 911 call center.

When the 911 operator answered, Andrews reported that he "heard somebody screaming next door, inside this building" at "227 Wegman." The call was transferred to Jersey City's call center, where 911 operator Petersen answered and asked for a location.

Andrews responded, "185 Wegman." He said, "I hear some screamin'" and "I don't know what's going on next door."

Petersen then prepared a computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, ticket, a narrative of the call, for transmittal to a police dispatcher. The CAD ticket listed the incorrect address given by Andrews, "185 Wegman Parkway," which he had confused because the building had two addresses.

Also, Petersen never asked Andrews what he meant by "next door" and so she mistakenly wrote "the house next door" rather than an apartment.

Petersen also violated police procedures by not asking for the caller's name or confirming the number he was calling from.

After receiving the CAD ticket, a dispatcher radioed police officers to "check 185 Wegman Parkway," noting that "caller states he hears someone screaming from the house next door."

The officers found the building at 185 Wegman unoccupied, found nothing amiss, and left.

About 22 hours later, at 11 p.m. on Sept. 20, Andrews called 911 again. Operator Murdaugh-Jones answered, and Andrews stated he called "last night because I heard a little bit of noise and reckin' in the building across the hall," but nobody ever came.

Murdaugh-Jones interrupted Andrews and asked if he had "a life threatening emergency that's going on right now." He replied, "No... it happened last night."

The operator began to inform Andrews of the non-emergency number. Andrews interrupted, saying, "they should have come yesterday," and hung up.

Plaintiffs, members of the Wilson family, later filed a civil action alleging that the city of Jersey City and operators Petersen and Murdaugh-Jones engaged in negligence, gross negligence,
or wanton and willful disregard for the safety of others.

Justice Barry T. Albin, writing for a unanimous Court, said the appellate division wrongly interpreted the statute to provide greater immunity to telecommunications companies and to withdraw virtually all immunity to the call centers and 911 operators.

"Nothing in the legislative history suggests that the Legislature intended such a result," the justice wrote in the Court's 43-page opinion.

"Moreover, interpreting the statute in this manner leaves a legislative scheme in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics responding to an emergency are immunized for their negligent acts whereas the 911 operators handling the emergency call are subject to suit."

The Court said because the appellate division never addressed the plaintiffs' argument that the trial court erred in finding insufficient evidence of wanton and willful disregard for the safety of person -- a claim not extinguished by the immunity statute -- it remanded to the court for determination of that issue.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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