Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

December 6, 2012

City facing suit over 911 response

By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — An alderman's sister has put the city on notice that she may sue over a mishandled 911 call made for their dying mother earlier this year.

In a notice of claim filed in state Supreme Court, Niagara County, this week, Beth A. Arajs, executor of the estate of Jeanette A. Lombardi, tentatively charged that city-dispatched first responders contributed to Mrs. Lombardi's death on Sept. 20 by taking too long to act on a 911 call made on her behalf.

Mrs. Lombardi, 75, was the mother of 1st Ward Alderman John Lombardi III.

Emergency response was summoned to Mrs. Lombardi's West Avenue home some time between 11 a.m. and noon Sept. 20, after she experienced sudden physical distress. According to Arajs' notice of claim, "the call was neglected for such a significant amount of time that when assistance finally arrived (she) had already died."

Arajs' attorney, Gregory Stamm of Williamsville, said more than 20 minutes passed between the 911 call and an ambulance's arrival at the home.

According to multiple sources, the ambulance was sent by Wrights Corners Volunteer Fire Co., after Lockport Fire Department invoked mutual aid due to both of its ambulances being tied up. At the time the 911 call came from the Lombardi home, one ambulance reportedly was transporting a mental health patient out of the city while the other was listed as being used in a training exercise at Van de Mark Chemical.

Arajs' notice of claim asserts the city, through employees, agents and subcontractors, was "negligent, careless and reckless (in its) failure to properly respond to a 911 call as required by law, regulation and established protocols; failure to keep one unit in service when another unit is transporting out of the immediate area of responsbility; failure to maintain backup coverage if all other units are out of service; failure to properly prioritize call coverage; failure to keep in continuous radio contact with dispatch; and failure to train personnel in their duties resulting in Jeanette A. Lombardi's death."

Stamm declined to further specify the allegations in a Thursday telephone interview, saying Arajs is not yet certain whether she'll file a lawsuit against the city. The family hasn't received autopsy results yet and the official cause of Mrs. Lombardi's death will be a determining factor. Notice of Claim is a required step in the process of suing a municipality, and notices must be filed within 90 days of an incident to give the plaintiff standing.

Stamm, who specializes in medical malpractice claims, said the Lombardi claim notice is filed "just in case," while he continues his investigation into the incident.

"It's precautionary more than anything," Stamm said. "We're investigating whether the city took too long to respond to the 911 call, whether there was an unnecessary, improper delay; and we don't have all the facts yet."

Whispered predictions of legal fallout for the city have been coming out of 1 Locks Plaza ever since Mrs. Lombardi died. According to sources, Fire Chief Thomas Passuite investigated his department's actions and determined a number of Standard Operating Procedures — rules governing who does what in specific instances — were violated.

Primarily, the sources said, officers in charge at the department on Sept. 20 erred in two regards.

First, when a 911 call comes in and both LFD ambulances are occupied, standard operating procedure is for a paramedic crew to head out in a fire truck. This was not done. An officer in charge at the fire house told dispatch to invoke mutual aid, instead.

Second, the ambulance that was listed as "out of service" for the training exercise at Van De Mark was, in fact, available according to Passuite's investigation. A firefighting crew was at the scene but the training exercise was over, and the officer in charge did not inform dispatch that the ambulance and crew were in fact available, sources said.

Meanwhile, a police dispatcher tried twice to summon South Lockport Volunteer Fire Co., the next-closest E-911 responder, but got no reply and moved on to contacting Wrights Corners.

Call records show the Wrights Corners ambulance arrived at 188 West Ave. — 0.35 miles from City Hall, where police and firefighters are based — 26 minutes after Mrs. Lombardi's husband called 911.

Relating to the incident, in mid-October, the civilian-led Fire Board ordered demotions for the two officers in charge, but that "discipline" can't be imposed until the officers have been through a hearing that's comparable to a trial. Those hearings have not yet been scheduled, the sources said.

Arajs' notice of claim does not list specific monetary damages being sought from the city.

The claim is filed by Arajs as executor of her mom's estate, but in reality the "estate" would sue and collect any award. Alderman John Lombardi acknowledged he's part of that estate, along with his brother and two sisters.

Being a potential beneficiary of litigation against the city is "awkward" for him as an alderman, but not as a grieving son, Lombardi said in an interview Thursday.

"If this ends up going to court, there may be ramifications for me (as an elected official). ... Some people may think it's about money. It's not," he said. "Mom didn't get what she deserved. What happened to her, I don't want to see happen to anyone else, ever."