COA affirms denial of summary judgment to Howard Co. after botched 911 call

A genuine issue of material fact still exists on the willful or wanton exception to governmental immunity for the use of a 911 system in the case of mishandled Howard County emergency call that resulted in a woman’s death, the Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed.

In the interlocutory appeal of Howard County Sheriff’s Department and Howard County 911 Communications v. Derrick Duke and Dustin Duke, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Tammy Lynn Ford, Deceased, 20A-CT-1936, the Howard County Sheriff’s Department and Howard County 911 Communications appealed an order denying their motion for summary judgment on a complaint filed by Derrick Duke and Dustin Duke as co-personal representatives of the estate of Tammy Lynn Ford.

In 2015, Ford had called 911 and said she couldn’t breathe, giving her address when asked by dispatcher Zachary Rudolph. But Rudolph did not enter Ford’s address into the computer as required by protocol and hung up when a second dispatcher, Hillary Farmer, took over the call.

Without verifying Ford’s address, medics and the Kokomo Fire Department were dispatched to Ford’s apartment. But the address was incorrect, leaving the medics 10 blocks away from Ford. Upon arrival at the correct location, they found her without a pulse, and Ford was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Her estate filed a complaint against the county and sought damages recoverable under the wrongful-death statute, alleging, in part, that the county had negligently and carelessly sent the medics to the incorrect address and that the delay had resulted in Ford’s death. It also alleged the county’s actions amounted to willful or wanton misconduct.

The Howard Circuit Court issued an order denying the county’s summary judgment motion, concluding genuine issues of material fact existed as to the issue of willful or wanton misconduct.

The Indiana Court of Appeals in its Thursday decision noted there’s no dispute that 911 system immunity under Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(19) would be applicable to the county — but only so long as there was no willful or wanton misconduct by the county’s 911 dispatch.

“The County designated evidence to suggest that the dispatchers’ actions were a mistake, but, as the trial court concluded, the Ford Estate designated evidence to show that there were ‘genuine issues of material fact as to whether the actions of the Howard County employees constituted willful or wanton misconduct so as to except the Howard County defendants from governmental immunity,’” Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote for the appellate court.

“Specifically, the Ford Estate designated an incident report concluding that the failure to dispatch KFD to Ford’s address played a ‘big role’ in her death, and evidence that KFD and (the Kokomo Police Department) had reported of prior reported problems with the County’s 911 dispatch prior to the 2015 incident with Ford. As a result, summary judgment should not be granted where material facts conflict or conflicting inferences are possible,” Pyle wrote.

Thus, because it found a genuine issue of material fact on the willful or wanton exception to governmental immunity for the use of a 911 system, the appellate panel concluded the trial court did not err by denying the summary judgment motion.

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