Wrongful Death Lawsuit Highlights Insufficient 911 Response Procedures

In 2018, a 16-year-old Cincinnati student died after he became trapped by a folding seat in the back of his minivan in a high school parking lot. The teen managed to use his cell phone to call 911, but emergency operators and police were unable to locate his car.

The family of the decedent filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2019 against the city, the city manager, and two 911 call takers. The lawsuit alleged several city employers were at fault. 

In April 2021, the family reached a settlement in the amount of $6 million dollars, with $250,000 earmarked for improvements to the city’s 911 call center. 

Police officers’ vehicles were not equipped with mapping technology, which hindered their ability to locate the teen’s car.

One reason the police were unable to locate the teen is that they did not have enough information to narrow their search. This is, in part, because the 911 call taker incorrectly labeled the incident as “unknown trouble.” In Cincinnati, 911 calls with the unknown trouble designation are only responded to by police. 

Unfortunately, police vehicles in the city are not outfitted with mapping technology that would allow officers to pinpoint the location of 911 calls. City of Cincinnati EMS and fire vehicles are equipped with mapping technology, but these departments were not dispatched. 

The local police department has made several policy changes in response to the settlement, which highlighted certain blind spots.

As part of the settlement, the city is pledging $250,000 to make improvements to the 911 call center. They plan to hire three outside experts to examine the city’s 911 operations and response. The settlement stipulates that any improvements recommended by the experts must be made. 

The local police department that handled this incident has also reviewed its policies. Police officers are now required to get out of their vehicle and search the scene on foot, even during unknown trouble calls. And all police vehicles will be outfitted with mapping technology, just as EMS and fire vehicles are. This can help officers locate future 911 callers, if the caller’s location is not clear. 

Such changes are welcome by the family of the deceased, as they insisted that the wrongful death lawsuit was filed, in part, to force changes in local policing procedures. 

This case was very tragic, and certainly very difficult for all parties involved. We applaud the City of Cincinnati’s willingness to improve their emergency response procedures. All city and county authorities would be well served to emulate this process by identifying and addressing potential weaknesses in their response processes, so they can continue to best serve members of their communities.

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