The family of a 77-year-old District man who suffered a fatal heart attack across the street from a fire station in Northeast Washington has filed a $7.7 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the District, alleging that Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. could have been saved if firefighters had responded to bystanders who asked them to help.
“The city needs to be held accountable,” said Medric Mills III, who stood next to his sister and the family’s attorney, Karen Evans, at a news conference Wednesday morning to announce the lawsuit.
The seven-count complaint stems from the Jan 25, 2014, incident in which Mills collapsed on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Bystanders who rushed to the fire station to get help were turned away, wrongly told that no response could be launched until someone called 911, the suit said. A passing ambulance stopped to help Mills, but he later died.
“This is not just going to affect the Mills family. This is going to affect anyone at risk,” said Evans, who filed the complaint against the D.C. Fire and EMS Department on behalf of the Mills family.
An internal investigative report revealed a culture of indifference and dysfunction at the station of Truck 15. Firefighters said they didn’t know or hadn’t been told that Mills needed help or thought someone else was handling the emergency. One firefighter, instead of helping Mills, grabbed a book and retired to his bunk to study for a promotional exam. Others blamed a probationary firefighter who tried paging the lieutenant in charge instead of ringing the station’s general alarm.
Last June, disciplinary hearings were held behind closed doors for several of the firefighters involved.
One of the firefighters in the case — Garrett Murphy, a seven-year veteran who was found guilty of the most severe charge, conduct unbecoming — was given a 60-hour suspension without pay. He was accused of reading while Mills lay outside.
Another firefighter was reprimanded and a third was exonerated. Kellene Davis, the lieutenant in charge of the station where bystanders went for help, was a 28-year veteran of the department, and she retired before the trial board that convened in the case issued its formal decision — that she was not recommended for firing. She received her full annual pension of about $70,000.
Last August, Eugene A. Jones, the interim fire chief, said the discipline was not severe enough.
A spokesman for the fire department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Ed Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, said by e-mail Wednesday that the incident involving the death happened during “one of the most difficult eras in the history” of the fire department.
Smith added that he thinks the department, under the leadership of new Fire Chief Gregory Dean, is headed in a “much more positive direction.”
The union is working with the department and District government, Smith said, to get rid of “any obstacles that hinder the rapid and effective delivery” of fire and emergency services.
Evans, the Mills family’s attorney, said that during the months following Mills’s death, his family tried to work with D.C. government officials and the fire department in an effort to avoid a court action.
She said that among other actions sought by family members, they want fire officials to issue new standards for responding to emergencies when people seek help at a firehouse.
“We have tried to work behind the scenes without the necessity of filing a lawsuit, but those efforts in respect to the public duty doctrine have been ignored, and we so we are filling this lawsuit today because we want real reform,” Evans said.
Mills’s daughter, Marie N. Mills, said D.C. ambulances upset her now.
“Every time I see one, it brings tears,” she said. “When I hear of a slow response, no response. There was nothing done correctly that day.”