N.J. SC: Couple can sue city rescue squad for son's death

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 18, 2012, 10:20am


TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a couple can sue a city's rescue squad for their son's death.

The plaintiff couple, Geraldine and Odis E. Murray, argued that the Plainfield squad delayed in transporting their son, Odis P. Murray, a gunshot victim, to a nearby hospital.

Shortly after 5 a.m. Aug. 4, 2004, Odis P. was shot in the chest by his brother, Akeem Murray, outside their home in Plainfield.

Geraldine and Odis E. went outside to investigate and found their son lying in the street. He was alive, able to speak and identified Akeem as the shooter.

Geraldine immediately called 911. Soon after, at 5:16 a.m., a Plainfield Rescue Squad ambulance arrived. It was staffed by two emergency medical technicians-basics and a volunteer.

Squad members later testified that Odis P. had no pulse and was unconscious, and they began giving CPR.

According to court documents, when Geraldine -- herself a critical care nurse -- asked why they were not transporting her son to the hospital or intubating him, the squad members looked at her "like a deer in headlights." The hospital was only minutes away.

Eventually, at 5:47 a.m. -- more than a half hour after arriving -- the squad members took Odis P. to the hospital.

The personnel there intubated him and tried to insert an intravenous line. He had an active blood pressure.

Doctors found that the bullet had perforated his aorta and severed his spinal cord.

By 6:10 a.m. -- about an hour after being shot -- Odis P. was pronounced dead.

The plaintiffs later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against defendant Plainfield Rescue Squad and others.

An expert for the Murrays, Dr. William L. Manion, testified that the squad members "wasted over 30 minutes" performing ineffective CPR, depriving the couple's son of "any chance of surviving his injury."

Manion explained that Odis P. needed an immediate transport to the nearby emergency room, where a surgical trauma team could have opened his chest and taken him to the operating room for surgical repair.

Had he been transported promptly, he would have had a 20 to 30 percent chance of surviving, the doctor testified.

Despite this testimony, a trial court granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment.

With respect to the rescue squad, the court found immunity under both N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 and another statute.

The state's appellate division affirmed, determining that only N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 shielded the squad from civil liability.

The panel rejected the plaintiffs' argument that this statute only applies to EMT-intermediates because EMT-basics are not specifically mentioned.

The panel also concluded that the EMT-basics manning the squad were rendering "intermediate life support services in good faith" as required by N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29, and the plaintiffs failed to show that the squad members did not act in an objectively reasonable manner, even if they were arguably negligent in not transporting their son promptly to the hospital.

The state's high court only reviewed the issue of whether the trial court erred in granting the squad's motion for summary judgment based on statutory immunity under N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29.

In its 21-page opinion, the Court held that N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 provides immunity to "officers and members" of a rescue squad for civil damages in rendering "intermediate life support services in good faith."

However, the plain language of the statute does not provide immunity to a rescue squad as an entity, it said.

"The Squad would have us engraft onto the statute an immunity provision that the Legislature pointedly omitted. That we cannot do. We are charged with interpreting a statute; we have been given no commission to rewrite one," Justice Barry T. Albin wrote in the Court's unanimous ruling.

The public policy of the Legislature is clearly expressed in the language of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29, the Court explained.

"The Legislature chose to provide immunity to volunteer rescue squads and to rescue squads rendering advanced life support services," Albin wrote. "By the clear language of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29, the Legislature chose not to provide immunity to rescue squads, as entities, rendering intermediate life support services.

"If the failure to provide immunity to such rescue squads was an oversight, any corrective measure must be taken by the Legislature."

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

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