- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The family of a 77-year-old man who died after D.C. firefighters refused to provide aid when he collapsed across the street from their fire station has filed a $7.7 million lawsuit against the city in a bid to hold the fire department accountable for a “historic pattern and practice” of substandard emergency care.

The attorney representing the family of Medric Cecil Mills Jr. said she has tried to work with city lawmakers and D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services officials to bring about change in the agency and in the interpretation of a legal precedent that she says prevents them from holding the emergency workers accountable in court.

But with little progress in negotiations over the last year and a half, attorney Karen Evans said the lawsuit is the family’s only option.

“We did not intend or desire to end up on the steps of the courthouse, but this is where the city’s response leaves us,” Ms. Evans said. “The insulation and lack of accountability that permeates D.C. FEMS has created a culture of carelessness which has eroded the confidence of the city and residents in D.C. FEMS.”

Mills died in January 2014 after collapsing from a heart attack at a shopping center across the street from Engine Company 26 in Northeast in an incident that drew national headlines and led to an investigation that left two of five involved firefighters unpunished.

The wrongful death lawsuit — filed in D.C. Superior Court Wednesday against the city, five firefighters and four emergency call takers — says the fire department failed to adequately train employees, and describes problems with firefighters who declined to render aid unless they were dispatched after a 911 call.

Citing eight cases dating back to the 2006 death of New York Times journalist David Rosenbaum, 63, who died of a brain injury from an assault after medical responders misdiagnosed him as a drunk, the lawsuit alleges that the training problems were long known and the department has a “pervasive culture of deliberate indifference” in providing proper care of D.C. residents.

Fire department spokesman Tim Wilson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Mills‘ daughter, Marie Mills, said she cries when she hears of other incidents in which people have to wait too long for first responders like her father did.

“The people who failed to do their jobs should be accountable for their lack of action,” said Mills‘ son, Medric Mills III.

Ms. Evans acknowledges the lawsuit faces an uphill court battle and that success may only come at the appeals court level due to a little-known legal precedent called the “public duty doctrine,” which says that emergency workers have no legal obligation to help people in trouble but only a general duty to the public at large.

Local governments often invoke the doctrine to protect themselves from being found negligent for failure to provide services, such as police and emergency response.

In the District, Ms. Evans argues that city officials use the doctrine far too broadly to dismiss cases in which employees should be held accountable for negligence.

She said the Mills family met with city officials to determine if there were a way to modify the public duty doctrine to curtail its use, but those efforts were fruitless. Ms. Evans has argued that the doctrine should not be applied in the Mills case.

A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser confirmed that the mayor and other administration officials have met with the Mills family on the issue, but he declined to comment on the discussions.

Through a spokesman, Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue said officials would “continue to work ceaselessly with the Mills family, community members and the Council to implement needed reforms in a timely, effective manner.”

Ms. Evans said the city has made some strides since the fatal incident: The fire department now blocks employees from retiring while they are under investigation for misconduct in order to hold the employees accountable.

Lt. Kellene Davis, the senior firefighter under investigation in the Mills case, retired before a trial board could rule on her case and dole out punishment that might have affected her rank or pension.

Marie Mills, the daughter, sought to get a seat on the city’s Emergency Medical Services advisory committee, and is awaiting a response from the mayor. The family also has asked newly appointed Fire Chief Gregory Dean to draft an order outlining the protocol for employees when a citizen seeks assistance directly from a fire station. Ms. Evans said she was informed that the order is forthcoming.

But given the city’s Office of Risk Management’s recent response to the Mills family, it appears unlikely the city would budge on accepting liability for Mills‘ death.

In a letter responding to the family’s allegations that employees’ failure to render aid resulted in Mills‘ death, a claim specialist with the Office of Risk Management wrote that “D.C. FEMS staff did not engage in any activities which worsened Mr. Mills‘ condition or contributed to his death.”

“Therefore, there is no liability on the part of the District in this matter,” the claim specialist wrote.

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