- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2014

For decades, the “public duty doctrine” has been cited by judges across the country to dismiss any number of cases seeking to hold police, firefighters and paramedics accountable for seemingly egregious violations of their duty.

Now the little-known legal precedent — which says emergency workers have no legal obligation to help people in trouble but only a general duty to the public at large — is coming into question from family members of a man who died of a heart attack near a D.C. fire station after being refused help from trained medical personnel inside.

Medric Cecil Mills Jr., 77, died last month after collapsing at a shopping center across the street from Engine 26 in Northeast D.C. in an incident that drew national headlines and outraged Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who demanded an immediate investigation.

“Bystanders were screaming for help to the firefighters,” Mills‘ son, Medric Mills III, said at a press conference Thursday at the shopping center. “But when a medical emergency happened right on their doorstep, they ignored it.”

An attorney for the family was asked immediately about the prospects of a lawsuit against the city — and it’s chronically troubled Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Karen Evans, who is representing the family, said the Millses were evaluating their legal options, and she quickly turned the spotlight to a potential legal hurdle for cases brought under similar circumstances: the public duty doctrine.

In the District, the doctrine prevents the city government from being found negligent for failure to provide services, such as police and emergency response, except in limited circumstances. The District also “has no duty to provide public services to any particular citizen,” a recent D.C. Court of Appeals ruling affirmed.

“It basically says there is no obligation to protect the public,” said lawyer Charles Jerome Ware, who recently represented the family of Durand Ford Sr.

Ford died on New Year’s Day 2013 after waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital on a night the department complained of being short-staffed. The $12 million lawsuit was dismissed in September, with D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz writing that all claims were “barred as a matter of law by the public duty doctrine.”

Similar laws are used across the country to protect jurisdictions from lawsuits that could drain their coffers and leave them unable to provide services at all.

Some judges have taken the view that it’s not the role of the judiciary to second-guess lawmakers’ decisions about how resources should be allocated. They say such precedents would, for example, put police officials in the position of insuring the personal safety of every member of their community.

But over the years, the District’s legal protection under the doctrine has become nearly absolute.

“The public duty doctrine in Washington is the toughest. It’s pretty concrete,” Mr. Ware said. “Maryland will allow some claims if there appears to be gross or willful actions on behalf of the department. In D.C., they don’t even allow you to get to the point of deciding that.”

Lawyer Jeffrey Light litigated — and lost — the case of Phyllis Woods, who emergency personnel concluded in 2009 was suffering from cigarette withdrawal and did not transport her to a hospital when, in fact, she was showing early signs of a stroke. Both the judge in the case and an appeals court cited the public duty doctrine.

“On some level, it makes a little bit of sense. You shouldn’t necessarily be able to sue police every time a crime is committed and wasn’t prevented,” Mr. Light said.

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