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City loses suit in woman’s death

July 15, 2013

PAWTUCKET — The city of Pawtucket recently lost a costly lawsuit involving a 53-year-old female kidney patient who bled to death waiting for a Fire Department ambulance to arrive.
The Sept. 20, 2007 case involving the late Maria G. Carvalho, who had lived with her husband, Joao, in an apartment at 101 Gooding Street, caused an uproar at the time and led to more stringent dispatch training. A lawyer for the family, Stephen M. Rappoport, sued the city for $4 million in a wrongful death claim and a survivor's claim, maintaining negligence and improper training by the Pawtucket Fire Department.
Maria Carvalho, who was undergoing dialysis, was home with her husband when she began to bleed heavily from a shunt in her arm. Joao Carvalho, who spoke limited English, and an 81-year-old neighbor from across the street, attempted to summon help for Maria, making a total of three 911 calls between them. However, there was a delay of about 15 minutes until an ambulance was dispatched, and another three minutes for the ambulance to arrive at Gooding Street, during which time Maria Carvalho died.
In a claim against the city, its former fire chief and several firefighters that was filed in February 2008, Rappoport maintained that Carvalho would have survived if an ambulance had been sent from the first 911 call to Pawtucket Fire dispatchers.
The claim also maintained that the dispatchers, both rookie firefighters at the time, had been inexperienced and untrained, and hadn't been qualified to handle such emergency calls unsupervised. Additionally, the claim alleged that the Pawtucket Fire Department was negligent in its training and handling of the emergency call services and failed to follow National Standards.
Following a jury trial before Superior Court Judge Patricia Hurst, a jury ruled on July 1 in favor of Joao Carvalho for compensation in the sum of $758,000, that, with interest, amounts to more than $1.3 million. With another $250,000 award for the death itself, the final compensation will be about $1.5 million.
Attorney Stephen M. Rappoport, who represented Joao Carvalho, called the verdict “wonderful news” for his client, saying, “Mr. Carvalho is thrilled to see that his wife did not die in vain.”
The lawsuit named former city Finance Director Ronald Wunschel (since retired), former Fire Chief Timothy McLaughlin (since retired and now Fire Chief in Johnston), the two firefighter dispatchers, Sean P. Mooney and Christopher Jeffrey, and their supervisors at the time, firefighters Earl Newman and Robert Thurber, said Rappoport. Claims were dismissed by the plaintiffs against five other members of the Fire Department.
Rappoport said that his lawsuit centered around showing that the city had been “egregious” in its actions, or had shown gross negligence.” He said all of the city officials named in the suit, except for dispatcher Sean Mooney, were found to have been guilty of “egregious” negligence.
“I believe this case will, hopefully, change the way this city dispatches. No one should have been put in a position to see their wife bleed to death,” Rappoport stated.
Pawtucket City Solicitor Frank Milos said it is unlikely, given the nature of this case, that the city will appeal. He said the bulk of the compensation to Joao Carvalho will be paid by the city's insurance carrier, Interlocal Trust, and a $300,000 deductible will have to be paid by the city.
Milos called it a difficult case, and credited the attorney who handled it for the city, Marc DeSisto, for his “dedication and professionalism.” He said a key point for the jury centered around the issue of “proximate cause,” which was something that the jurors deliberated on for three days.
The dispatchers directly involved in the case, Sean P. Mooney and Christopher Jeffrey, were fired by the former administration under Mayor James Doyle in the wake of the controversy. Both had been on the department for less than a year when the incident occurred. However, they were reinstated about six months later after being cleared of any criminal wrongdoing or professional misconduct by the state Department of Health and remain on the city's Fire Department.
Antonio Pires, who is Public Safety director and Director of Administration for Mayor Donald Grebien, said that since the tragic incident involving Maria Carvalho, several changes have taken place to improve training and dispatching procedures. He said one of the main points in the case concerned a language barrier that was allegedly a contributing factor to the delay. He said dispatchers have since been trained to “send out the units first and ask questions later” about the nature of the stated emergency.
Current Fire Chief William Sisson said that even when the incident occurred back in 2007, more dispatcher training was instituted in the Fire Department, and since then, the candidates in the fire schools spend longer hours—now about 40 hours—on testing and training for dispatch. He also said any new firefighters spend an extended period of time “job shadowing” existing dispatchers.
Sisson added that with the “enhanced 911” capabilities provided now through the central emergency call center in Providence, local fire departments are offered the use of a language translator. He said that even in the event that the dispatchers redial the number and get no answer, they automatically send a rescue and an engine to every emergency call.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna

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