The medical malpractice attorneys at Leeseberg & Valentine obtained a $1.2 million settlement against the City of Columbus for their client. This is the largest personal injury payout in city history and sets an important legal precedent that will hold public employees responsible for their egregious conduct. This settlement exceeds the prior record payment of $1 million, which was also obtained by Leeseberg & Valentine, in the case of Wagner v. City of Columbus, on behalf of a young boy electrocuted by a defective lamp post on one of the City’s bridges.
In January 2011, Sonia Bray was undergoing imaging at an MRI facility when she vomited and began to feel distressed. An MRI facility employee called 911 and City of Columbus paramedics responded to the scene. Over the next ten minutes, two paramedics did little to nothing to help Ms. Bray. They eventually loaded her onto a cot, yet still provided essentially no care for another 15 minutes. Finally, 25 minutes after arriving on scene, the paramedics attempted to place Ms. Bray into the ambulance to transport her to the hospital. At that time, she suffered cardiopulmonary arrest. While she was resuscitated, she unfortunately suffered significant brain injury as a result of the arrest. She died two days later.
Ms. Bray’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City, but the case was thrown out of the trial court on summary judgment. The court reasoned that the paramedics’ actions of making a visual assessment, taking partial vital signs, giving oxygen, and positioning the legs constituted “any care” such that the paramedics were entitled to personal immunity for their actions. This is only one small example of the protections granted to Ohio’s governmental employees for their negligent acts.
In Ohio, municipal corporations, such as the City of Columbus, enjoy qualified sovereign immunity under R.C. 2744. Qualified immunity for EMS workers in Ohio has meant for all intents and purposes complete immunity because trial and appellate courts have essentially held that if anything is done by the first responders, then it cannot be claimed that they acted with reckless disregard, and EMS personnel cannot be held liable for ordinary negligence.
To have a viable claim against a public employee, one must be able to show that the employee’s acts or omissions were with malicious purpose, in bad faith or in a wanton or reckless manner. This is because public employees are entitled to sovereign immunity and taxpayers should not be responsible for floating the bill for ordinary negligence. Wanton misconduct is defined as the failure to exercise “any care” toward those to whom a duty of care is owed in circumstances in which there is great probability that harm will result. Reckless conduct is characterized by the conscious disregard of or indifference to a known or obvious risk of harm to another that is unreasonable under the circumstances and is substantially greater than negligent conduct.
Ultimately, the court of appeals in Columbus reversed the summary judgment for the City. The Court determined the case should not have been thrown out, and that the actions of the paramedics in this case could easily meet the standards to overcome immunity. Of note, this was one of the first cases in Ohio to successfully establish conduct by EMS personnel was so egregious that they were not entitled to immunity. While the issue of what exactly constitutes “any care” is still up for interpretation, this establishes important precedent in Ohio that works to level the playing field for those bringing a case against a public entity. Hopefully this ruling will establish an environment where plaintiffs will not immediately be thrown out on summary judgment and allow their claims to go to be fully and fairly adjudicated.