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November 1, 2012 at 9:09 PM

High court allows lawsuit over delayed 911 response to proceed

Gene Johnson / The Associated Press

The family of a man shot and killed by his neighbor in Skagit County can proceed to trial on claims that the county’s emergency-communications center mishandled its response to his panicked 911 call, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

William R. Munich, a well-driller from Orcas Island, was on his property at Lake Campbell in October 2005 when the neighbor, Marvin Ballsmider, shot at him with a rifle. Ballsmider had been drinking and was upset that Munich asked him to stop driving his recreational vehicle across Munich’s land to dump out its septic tank.

Munich, 63, called 911 and hid in a float-plane hangar on his property. There were three cars inside, and he could have driven away, but the 911 operator told him that a deputy was en route and confirmed that Munich would wait.

However, the operator failed to code the call as an emergency, and the deputy didn’t arrive as quickly as he could have.

Seven minutes later, Munich called 911 again. His neighbor had come into the hangar and flushed him out, he reported, and he was now running along Highway 20 as his neighbor chased after him in a car, firing out a window.

The call ended with the sound of Munich being shot to death. The deputy arrived 18 minutes after the initial call.

Munich’s family sued Skagit County for wrongful death and presented evidence that had the call been coded as an emergency instead of a “priority 2 weapons call,” the deputy would have arrived before Munich was killed.

The county sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that it was immune from lawsuit under the public duty doctrine: that it did not owe a special duty to protect Munich any more than other members of the public, and thus was not liable for his death.

But the trial court and the appeals court declined to dismiss, and the Supreme Court affirmed their decision in an 8-1 decision. By promising that help was on the way, the court said in an opinion by Justice Mary Fairhurst, the 911 operator created a special relationship with Munich, and the county had a duty to fulfill its promise.

The family must still establish at trial that Munich relied on the promise when he remained in the hangar, and that the county breached its duty or acted negligently.

Five of the justices who signed the majority opinion also signed a concurrence by Justice Tom Chambers clarifying the court’s case law and interpretation of the public duty doctrine.

In dissent, Justice James Johnson noted that the 911 operator never promised how quickly the deputy would arrive.

“I am concerned the majority’s decision will put unwarranted pressure on every statement made by 911 operators, straining communications that depend on the free flow of information,” Johnson wrote.

Munich had lived in the San Juan Islands for 32 years and eventually hoped to build a home on his Lake Campbell property. He left his wife, two grown children and four grandchildren.

Ballsmider died in prison.

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