After Phyllis Woods starting vomiting, losing her balance, and slurring her speech one evening in December 2009, her friend called 911. After examining Woods, ambulance personnel didn’t take her to a hospital, telling her she was ill because she had recently quit smoking cigarettes. Woods felt sick again the next morning, though. After she went to a hospital, she learned she had suffered a stroke.
Woods sued the District of Columbia and lost on a legal theory known as the "public-duty doctrine," which gives the city immunity in most cases to negligence claims like the one Woods brought. Today, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal. Judge Kathryn Oberly wrote in a concurring opinion, however, that she hoped the full court will rehear the case and weigh whether to get rid of – or at least modify – that doctrine. Woods' attorney confirmed that they do plan to ask for a rehearing.
"With the holding the majority reaches today, it is clear that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the District, leaving its citizens at its mercy to provide competent emergency services, without redress when those services are the proximate cause of a tragic result," Oberly wrote.
Woods' lawyer on appeal, Washington solo practitioner Jeffrey Light, said today he’s preparing to petition the full court to hear the case. "I wholeheartedly agree with what [Oberly] has to say about how unfair the public-duty doctrine has become," he said. Light handled the case with Daniel Schultz of Washington's Schultz & Trombly.
The D.C. attorney general’s office is reviewing the opinion, said Ted Gest, a spokesman. A Fire and EMS Department spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
Under the public-duty doctrine, the city doesn't owe a general duty to provide public services to an individual; the city, then, can't be held liable for negligence. There are exceptions in situations in which the city had a "special relationship" with the individual, but Judge Roy McLeese III, writing for the court, noted that the court narrowly defined those exceptions in earlier cases.
Woods argued that ambulance personnel did have a "special relationship" with her because they examined her and gave her an incorrect medical diagnosis that worsened her condition. But McLeese pointed to a series of past decisions in which the court found that plaintiffs couldn't hold the city liable if their situation was made worse by relying on bad advice or actions by emergency responders as long as the responders were providing the same services as they would to the general public.
In one of those cases, Miller v. District of Columbia, the plaintiff accused a local police officer of negligently representing that children had been saved from a burning home, when in fact they had not; the plaintiff stopped the rescue effort and the children, who were still inside the home, died. In 2004, the court upheld the dismissal of those claims against the city under the public-duty doctrine.
Oberly wrote in her concurring opinion that the court was bound to follow previous case law, but that the current use of the doctrine was "unjust." If a citizen couldn't rely on publicly funded emergency responders to provide an accurate diagnosis, she wrote, "' Heaven help us,' one might say."
Senior Judge John Steadman also heard the case.