High Court Grants Municipal Ambulance Services Tort Immunity

By: Shawn Lescault

file0001131383239In the recent case of Applewhite v. Accuhealth, the New York State Court of Appeals held that municipal ambulance services are shielded from liability when acting for the protection and safety of the public under the doctrine of governmental immunity.

The case stems from an incident which occurred in 1998, when a visiting nurse injected Tiffany Applewhite with medication at her home. After receiving the injection, the 12-year-old girl suffered a seizure and ultimately went into cardiac arrest. Within minutes of her mother’s 911 call, EMTs arrived at the Applewhite residence. One EMT immediately began performing CPR while the other called for an advanced life support ambulance. At some point, Tiffany’s mother allegedly requested that the EMTs transport Tiffany to a nearby hospital rather than wait for an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance to arrive. However, she was not transported to the hospital until the ALS ambulance arrived on scene. Tiffany survived the ordeal but tragically suffered serious brain damage. Following the incident, Tiffany’s mother sued the ambulance service accusing that they were negligent for not transporting her daughter to the hospital quickly enough.

The court’s decision highlights the need to balance individuals’ legal remedies with public good. Imposing legal liability on first responders would hinder their ability to provide emergency care, and make society as a whole less safe. In the decision, Judge Graffeo articulated: “we believe that publicly-employed, front-line EMTs and other first responders, who routinely place their own safety and lives in peril in order to rescue others, surely fulfill a government function[.]”

This decision will save taxpayers millions of dollars a year in potential litigation expenses and tort liability expenses. Last year alone, there were over 1.4 million EMS responses in NYC — most of which were performed by municipal employees.  Governmental immunity allows emergency medical personnel to make the calculated health decisions to lives without fear of being hauled into court.  This ruling ensures that trained professionals, not lawyers, will be in charge of New Yorkers’ first response medical care.

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