Hot Docs: New York City sued by daughter of woman who died after blizzard

June 30, 2011

Winter Storm New York CityFrom December 26 through December 27, the U.S. East Coast saw a massive blizzard.

The blizzard brought strong winds and large quantities of snow, with New York City seeing up to 20 inches in certain areas.

A new lawsuit alleges that the city was negligent in dealing with the conditions, and as a consequence of that negligence, the plaintiff’s mother died.

Here’s how it happened:

On December 28, 2010 Hazel Robinson, at home, became unconscious, but was gasping for breath.

Family members immediately placed several calls to 911, but the line was busy and remained so for approximately 20 minutes.

They finally got through, and detailed the situation.

After 30 minutes and many more 911 calls, several emergency medical technicians arrived.

Because of the unplowed and icy conditions of the streets, they had to park the ambulance several blocks away and hike through the unplowed streets to reach the house.

It took the EMTs approximately 10 minutes to get from the house to the ambulance because the EMTs had to shovel the snow on the sidewalk out of the way as they went along in order to clear a path for the gurney carrying Robinson.

Even after they reached the ambulance, it took 45 minutes to reach the hospital two miles away because of the condition of the streets.

Hot Doc: Robinson v. City of New York

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

20 minutes after arriving at the hospital, Ms. Robinson was pronounced dead.

The complaint, of course, claims that had the ambulance arrived and transported Robinson to the hospital at normal speeds, she’d still be alive today.

That brings up the first of two legal hurdles this suit faces: proximate cause.

The complaint alleges that the cause of Robinson’s death was the delay in medical assistance, which was caused by the city failing to properly respond to the blizzard.

However, the complaint doesn’t specify the cause of Robinson’s mortal injury, nor her medical condition prior to her death.

Thus, we have no idea if it would’ve made any difference if the EMTs had arrived within five minutes or five hours of the 911 call; there may have been nothing faster medical help could have done to save her.

That issue is minor, though, compared to the second legal hurdle: municipal immunity.

This area of law is very complex and still open to interpretation, especially given a situation like this.

Generally, a city is immune from civil liability unless it has formed a “special relationship” with the plaintiff in one of three ways.

Such a relationship existed according to the complaint, in that NYC voluntarily assumed the duty to protect the safety, lives and welfare of Robinson and her daughter by properly performing snow and ice removal on the streets and to provide proper medical care to Robinson.

While the legal theories expressed in the complaint seem sound, this case will probably be decided on policy grounds.

Namely, if this suit doesn’t succeed (which there’s a good chance of), it will be because a court would shudder at the possibilities of a ruling for the plaintiff.

Think of it: if a “special relationship” existed here, it also existed with every other member of the city’s population.

Thus, the city could potentially be liable for thousands (or millions) of other legal claims, and a court’s not going to let that happen.

While it’s truly tragic what happened to Hazel Robinson, it’s unfortunately the price we pay for municipal immunity.