Newark 9-1-1 Dispatcher Mistake Lawsuit Can Go Forward, Appeals Court SaysNov 16, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
Newark, New Jersey is facing a lawsuit over a botched 9-1-1 call, following the abduction and murder of a woman. The family of Sohayla Massachi alleges that a 9-1-1 dispatcher’s negligence made it impossible for police to rescue the young woman. On Wednesday, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that Newark can be sued for the 9-1-1 employee’s mistake.
Sohayla Massachi was abducted in May by her former boyfriend, Christopher Hornrath. He took her to his apartment where he killed her, and then committed suicide. The Massachi family’s lawsuit claims she might have been rescued had a Newark 9-1-1 operator done her job. Massachi was seen struggling in Hornrath’s car by off-duty sheriff’s officers. They reported this to Newark 9-1-1 dispatcher Debony Venable. But Venable did not seem to understand the urgency of the situation. Transcripts from the 9-1-1 call quote her as saying "what are (police) going to do, by the time they come out this car will be gone." In relaying the emergency to police, Venable failed to note that the car Massachi was in was moving, not stationery. And she failed to keep the off-duty officers on the phone in order to receive updates about the status of the car.
Other mistakes were also allegedly made in the response to Massachi’s abduction. Another dispatcher, George Mike, did send a police unit to the scene. However, he did not issue a general police alert on the vehicle. And once they arrived at the apartment where Hornrath had taken Massachi, police waited for an hour before going in, even though they had heard two gunshots. While Hornrath was already dead, Massachi would not die two dies later. Her family contends that quicker action could have saved her life.
In allowing the Massachi family 9-1-1 lawsuit against Newark to go forward, the appeals court struck down a lower court ruling that said the city was immune from being sued over employee mistakes. The appeals court disagreed, writing in its opinion that "Once the City made a decision to hire 9-1-1 operators and provide them with specific procedural regulations governing the manner in which they must respond to calls, then the negligent performance of those 9-1-1 operator duties is not entitled to any immunity."
A lawyer for Massachi’s sister told Newsday that the family was overjoyed that a jury will finally hear their 9-1-1 lawsuit. According to Newsday, Newark is "currently reviewing the decision and will make a determination on how to proceed shortly."
The Newark 9-1-1 lawsuit now heads back to the Essex County Courts, where a trial date will be set.