Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against OC Paramedics

OCEAN CITY – A federal judge this week dismissed a $20 million civil lawsuit filed against Ocean City paramedics in June by the family of two Pennsylvania tourists who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Boardwalk hotel room in June 2006, stating no “special relationship” was forged during the tragic incident between the defendants and the victims.

In June, Yvonne and Morgan Boughter, family members of the pair of tourists who perished from carbon monoxide poisoning at the Days Inn on the Boardwalk in June 2006, filed suit against the town of Ocean City’s Department of Emergency Services-Fire/EMS Division along with five individual paramedics for allegedly failing to respond to their first 911 call at around 9:43 a.m. on that fateful morning.

According to the complaint, Ocean City EMTs responded to a similar call from a family in two adjacent rooms and rendered treatment and transported patients afflicted with CO poisoning, but never responded to Room 121 where the Boughter family was staying. Two members of the family, Patrick Boughter and his daughter Kelly, later succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, while the surviving family members, Yvonne Boughter and her other daughter, Morgan, were later hospitalized.

In June of this year, the surviving Boughter family members filed suit in U.S. District Court against the town of Ocean City Emergency Services Fire/EMS Division and five individual defendants seeking a combined $20 million in damages. The suit was filed just three months after the Boughter family reached an undisclosed settlement in a separate case against the owner of the hotel, the manufacturer of the faulty water heater deemed responsible for the CO leak, the company that distributed the water heater and the company that purchased and installed the water heater.

From the beginning, the plaintiffs alleged the Ocean City Emergency Services hastily abandoned efforts to find the family in distress after tending to the needs of families in other first-floor units in the hotel on the day of the tragedy. In August, Ocean City filed a motion to dismiss the case against the paramedics, citing a variety of reasons chief among them a notion the defendants owed no affirmative duty of care to the plaintiffs.

Basically, the motion asserts because the paramedics never made contact with the Boughters in Room 121, no “special relationship” with the victims was forged and, therefore, the EMTs had no liability to provide care to the family afflicted with CO poisoning in that room.

On Monday, Senior U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson granted the motion to dismiss the case. In his opinion, the judge cited a handful of cases in which the special relationship doctrine was evoked, most of which involved a police officer’s duty to render aid to a 911 caller.

“In the absence of a special relationship between the defendants and the Boughter family, there is no legally recognized duty, and thus, no sustainable claim of negligence,” Nickerson’s opinion reads. “For these reasons, the Court finds the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case must be granted. … Here, the court must conclude in the case at bar the defendants took no affirmative action, as Maryland courts have understood that term, to give rise to a special relationship. A 911 call was received and a response team was dispatched. It never reached the Boughter family. As the Maryland Court of Appeals has made clear, that is insufficient to create a special relationship.”

While it appears there was likely some breakdown in communication between the dispatchers and the responding paramedics regarding the conflicting 911 calls and the corresponding room numbers of those afflicted with carbon monoxide poisoning, it is unlikely the EMTs did not respond to Room 121 on purpose with malice as the complaint suggests. Nonetheless, the complaint’s assertion the defendants “breached their duty of care owed to the Boughter family and acted in a manner which was grossly negligent and was a wonton and reckless disregard for human life,” appears to be unfounded, the judge opined.

Records show at around 9:30 a.m. on June 27, 2006, a family sharing rooms 125 and 127 at the Days Inn called 911 complaining of symptoms associated with carbon monoxide poisoning. A short time later, Yvonne Boughter made her first 911 call of the day complaining her family was experiencing similar symptoms in Room 121 adjacent to the family that placed the first call.

According to 911 transcripts from the incident, the defendants were aware there was another family afflicted with carbon monoxide poisoning, but didn’t respond to the room after taking care of the other patients.

“Subsequent to Yvonne Boughter’s first 911 call to the defendants, transcripts of the defendants’ discussions show that they knew that there was a ‘second call, different room at the Days Inn Hotel, Room 121, for sick subjects experiencing similar things, also four patients’,” the complaint reads. “Later in the defendants’ discussions, it was again discussed that the Boughters were at the Days Inn Hotel at 2200 Baltimore Avenue, and were located in Room 1-2-1, 121.”

Around 1:53 p.m. on June 27, 2006, Yvonne Boughter awoke again and called 911 a second time. Ocean City EMTs were dispatched at around 1:58 p.m. and arrived at the Days Inn at approximately 2:02 p.m. By the time they arrived, Patrick and Kelly Boughter had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

According to the 911 transcripts included in the complaint, Yvonne Boughter told the dispatcher during the second call, “Yeah…um…I called you earlier and nobody came yet. My husband has passed away, my daughter looks like she passed away also.”

In his opinion handed down this week, Nickerson acknowledged the facts of the case, pointing out the Boughters’ assertion the defendants were negligent in that they failed to render assistance to the victims.

“They allege the defendants acted with gross negligence leading to the deaths of Patrick and Kelly and the injury to Yvonne and Morgan,” the judge’s opinion reads. “… The plaintiffs characterize this as a situation where the emergency responders actually arrived at the scene and began the process of rescuing the Boughter family and then, inexplicably abandoned those rescue efforts. The court finds this to be a mischaracterization of what the plaintiffs allege occurred. While the plaintiffs contend that this was somehow a rescue effort halted in midcourse, it is certainly more akin to a situation where responders simply arrived at the wrong address.”