When faced with a life threatening emergency, often our first thought is to dial 911 for fast help and advice. We hear the panicked calls on the evening news all the time and pray that we never have to make use of the service. 911 operators are trained to quickly gather essential information from the caller so they can arrange for appropriate emergency personnel to respond. They are also trained to give advice to callers while emergency help is on the way. The advice and assistance given by 911 operators can make the difference between life and death. But they are human and imperfect and some are downright incompetent.
While 911 operators perform an extremely valuable service to our community, they can make mistakes just like anyone else. What recourse is available when a person has been injured (or their medical emergency made worse) by bad advice given over the phone by a 911 operator? The answer may surprise you.
The 911 system in Georgia was created by a state-wide law called the “Georgia Emergency Telephone Number ‘911’ Service Act.” The specific language of the law may be found at O.C.G.A. § 46-5-121. That law set up a system of 911services throughout Georgia that can be operated either by local governments (mostly counties) or by private service providers hired by local government to perform this service. In addition to enacting a law establishing the 911 system, Georgia also enacted a statute specifically addressing claims against 9-1-1 providers when they make mistakes. That law (O.C.G.A. § 46-5-131) specifies that no 911 employees or agencies (including counties and other local governments) may be held liable (legally responsible) for negligently causing “death or injury to any person or for damage to property as a result of either developing, adopting, establishing, participating in, implementing, maintaining, or carrying out duties involved in operating the emergency 911 system or in the identification of the telephone number, address, or name associated with any person accessing an emergency 911 system.” Surprisingly, this holds true even when liability insurance has been purchased to protect against this type of claim.
O.C.G.A. § 46-5-121 does suggest (though it does not definitively declare) that “wanton and willful misconduct or bad faith” claims against 9-1-1 operators may be allowed. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals has clarified that such claims cannot be brought against counties or the state because of their protection by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. These claims may be brought against individual 9-1-1 operators, but only if proof exists of intent to cause harm. See Hendon v DeKalb County et al., 203 Ga. App. 750, 417 S.E.2d 705 (1992). As this situation is unlikely to be the cause of an injury resulting from a 9-1-1 call, it offers little help to the victim of bad 9-1-1 call handling.
When medical or other emergencies are made worse by 9-1-1 operators, there may be other ways to recover money damages besides making a claim directly against the 9-1-1 service. Suits against the person or entity that caused the original emergency (such as the driver of a car that causes a crash) can include claims for the damages made worse by the bad advice given by 9-1-1. Thinking creatively is important in these situations.
The bottom line is this. We all depend on 9-1-1 when emergencies arise. However, when 9-1-1 accidentally makes a bad situation worse, it is unlikely to be held accountable for its mistake.