Family of man who firefighters refused to help wants reforms to make it easier to sue city

An attorney for the family of a man who died after being refused help across the street from a District fire station said Thursday that they would fight to change a law that in many cases grants immunity for public workers who fail to help residents.

Karen E. Evans, who represents the family of Medric Cecil Mills, said repeated efforts to fix problems in the fire department have resulted in too many reports and too many investigations but little or no real reforms.

“Things like this keep happening,” she said, referring to the scrutiny the department has faced over patient care in the past several years. “Enough is enough.”

Evans spoke at a news conference in a strip mall parking lot on Rhode Island Avenue NE where Mills, 77, collapsed Jan. 25 after suffering an apparent heart attack. As his daughter held him, bystanders rushed to the fire station but reportedly were told that no one could respond unless they called 911 and a crew was dispatched. Mills’s daughter said a firefighter watched but did nothing. Mills later died at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

A fire lieutenant at the center of the investigation — which is expected to be completed in two weeks — submitted her retirement papers after being placed on administrative leave.

District officials, including Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), have expressed outrage and said there was no excuse for firefighters not to have helped Mills, whose funeral is scheduled for Saturday at Canaan Baptist Church. The Northwest Washington church was founded by Mills’s father in 1947.

“We want someone to take the blame for this tragedy and for those responsible to he held accountable,” said Mills’s son, Medric Mills III, who is a pastor in the District.

Evans called on lawmakers to overhaul the public duty doctrine, which states that in many cases District employees cannot be found negligent for failing to provide basic city services, including medical care.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said the public safety committee he chairs is planning to hold a hearing on the Mills case, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 24. His spokesman said a discussion of tort reform will be on the agenda.

Most cities have laws to limit liability, restrict lawsuits or place caps on payments. The laws are designed to protect municipalities from frivolous or duplicative lawsuits. Officials in the District said that the intent behind the city’s law was to encourage workers to help those in emergencies, easing their fears about later being sued.

One of the latest challenges to the doctrine came after a woman sued over an alleged misdiagnosis by an ambulance crew in December 2009. She had called 911 with slurred speech, a loss of balance and vomiting, and she said a paramedic told her that she had gotten sick from having stopped smoking cigarettes and that she didn’t require hospitalization. It was later determined that she had suffered a stroke.

A Superior Court judge threw out the case based on the public duty doctrine. In March 2013, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, but one judge, Kathryn A. Oberly, urged the full appeals court to “reexamine the scope of the public duty doctrine or perhaps even abolish it.” The full court declined in December to reconsider the case.

At Thursday’s news conference, Mills’s son urged lawmakers to “change the laws that do not allow the District to be held accountable in situations like this.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said Thursday that Mills had been a classmate at Dunbar Senior High School. She said the circumstances of his death “has not only done incalculable harm to his family, but also has painted an unfairly callous image of our city.”

Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said in an interview that people would be held accountable. “Nobody is going to be allowed to run away from this,” he said. “I’m appalled at this in the same way every citizen of this city is. But I don’t want this incident to paint this department with a broad brush of incompetence or lack of empathy.”

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