“It is bittersweet for the family,” says the Rivers family attorney, Joshua Van Naarden, “You have a young woman with a child who will never know his mother. To the family, I think the verdict meant ‘thank-you’ for recognizing the value of this woman and the mother she would have been.”
Rivers had given birth prematurely just a few days before collapsing at her parent’s home in February 3, 2012. When emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrived at the scene they fitted her with an endotracheal tube to help her breathe.
She died shortly after arriving at the hospital. It was the hospital medical staff that noticed the tube had been incorrectly placed.
The verdict in the Rivers case is noteworthy because emergency medical services providers have “qualified immunity” in New Jersey and in many other states.
“Qualified immunity means you have to essentially establish the advanced life support providers failed to act in good faith. That’s a very high burden, even higher than gross negligence,” says Van Naarden from the Philadelphia law firm of Ross Feller Casey.
It’s so high these cases rarely if ever come to trial -- this one did.
Van Naarden brought the jury over to his point of view with a straightforward argument.
“I tried to simplify the issue and show that the EMTs knew what the right thing to do was and then didn’t do it. That is bad faith. You can’t say you were acting in good faith because you in fact knew better. It’s that simple.
“In an emergency situation where you are presented with a patient, you also have the family screaming, you’re trying to get the patient out of the house, and perhaps it’s difficult to navigate the way,” says Van Naarden. “This has to be something you can do almost in your sleep.
“That is even more reason why these individuals have to be appropriately trained and understand the significance of the proper protocols and adhere to them,” he adds.
In this case, according to the claims made during the trial, the emergency medical services providers allowed a trainee to monitor Rivers’ airway as she was being maneuvered through the house and outside to the ambulance.
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The jury declined to hold the individual EMTs personally liable. It did, however, order their employer, Capital Health Systems Inc., to pay a record $6 million in damages -- $4 million to Rivers estate and $2 million in compensation to her five-year-old son.
LAS reached out to the lawyer for Capital Health for comment on a possible appeal but received no reply.
There have been few if any verdicts like this one because of the “qualified immunity” that is applied to EMTs. Van Naarden may have cracked the code leaving plaintiffs a route to similar lawsuits in the future.