In Jordan v. Nienhuis, the plaintiff was the personal representative of a man who died. The plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against the defendant in his capacity as a Sheriff in Hernando County. According to the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that a 911 operator was negligent in responding to a call requesting medical help.
The trial court concluded that the Sheriff did not owe a duty to the decedent and dismissed the case with prejudice. When an action is dismissed with prejudice, it means the plaintiff cannot refile the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed.
In reviewing the trial court’s order granting the Sheriff’s motion to dismiss, the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal reviewed the allegations in the complaint. The facts are as follows. According to the plaintiff, the decedent suffered a medical emergency that prevented him from breathing normally. His wife contacted 911, and the 911 operator told the wife that help was on the way. The decedent eventually stopped breathing and lost consciousness. After informing the 911 operator of this, the operator told the wife to leave him there and wait for EMS assistance, which arrived shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the man passed away.
The plaintiff alleged that the operator was negligent in downplaying the critical nature of the decedent’s health condition and erred by not telling her to administer care. The complaint also alleged that the operator was negligent in telling the wife that she did not need to provide additional care and that help was on the way. Based on these instructions, the wife alleged that she did not consider alternative forms of emergency care.
The trial court dismissed the complaint after finding that the Sheriff owed a duty of care to the public in general, rather than to a specific individual. The court also noted that the plaintiff had failed to plead a special relationship between the 911 operator and the decedent.
In describing the government’s tort liability, the appellate court stated that the government’s liability is defined according to different categories of conduct. The 911 phone system is part of the government’s Category II functions, involving public safety provided by a sheriff. To impose liability, the plaintiff was required to show that a special relationship existed between the decedent and the Sheriff. This includes an express promise of assurance or assistance, a justifiable reliance on that promise, and harm suffered as a result of reliance.
In affirming the lower court’s dismissal of the action, the appellate court noted that the Sheriff had not created a special relationship with the decedent. It also noted that the 911 operator did not act negligently in gathering information about the decedent’s condition and dispatching EMS services.
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