Court Finds Constables Failed to Help

HARTFORD (CN) — Two constables must face claims that they failed to rescue a woman who died after being caught in a storm, the Connecticut Appellate Court ruled.
     Robert Powers and Rhea Milardo, constables in Westbrook, were scheduled for boat patrol one night in June 2008. A thunderstorm prevented them from going out in the boat.
     Powers and Milardo went to a food mart, where the town’s tax collector told them she had seen a woman in trouble.
     The woman, Elsie White, was in a field with no coat or rain protection, with her arms raised to the sky, the tax collector said.
     Powers called the 911 dispatcher and told her a woman was “standing in a field with a raincoat on, looking up at the sky.”
     They chuckled before Powers added, “They think she might need medical attention.”
     “Geez, do you think?” the dispatcher replied, according to the ruling.
     Powers asked the dispatcher to send another constable because “I can’t leave the boat.”
     The dispatcher did not send help, testifying later that she “forgot.”
     Powers testified that he would respond if he thought someone was in danger, but he did not consider the woman’s case to be a “true emergency.”
     The next morning, a fisherman found White’s body washed up on the shore, the victim of an accidental drowning.
     White’s estate sued the constables in 2010. More than four years later, the constables filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of immunity.
     The trial court ruled in the constables’ favor, stating that immunity applied because they were performing typical functions of the job and could not have predicted that White would drown.
     The Connecticut Appellate Court reversed, citing the “imminent harm, identifiable victim” exception to the constables’ immunity.
     Judge F. Herbert Gruendel wrote that a jury could reasonably conclude “that the joking manner in which Powers called in the emergency to dispatch, together with the defendants’ failure to respond themselves, made it more likely than not that White would become a victim of the storm.”
     He added that White qualified as an “identifiable victim,” citing Powers’ comment to the dispatcher that “she should be the person standing out in the rain.”
     Gruendel also found that White faced “imminent harm.”
     “Although there were many ways that the storm could have taken White’s life, the general nature of the harm was the same — exposure to the elements while she was in a vulnerable state,” he wrote.
     Gruendel remanded to the trial court.
     Judge Raheem L. Mullins dissented, noting that White’s body was found half a mile from the field where the tax collector saw her.
     “She did not drown in the field, nor was she struck by lightning or injured in the field as a result of the storm, i.e., struck by a downed tree limb, flying debris, etc.,” Mullins wrote in dissent.
     “Thus, the nexus between the alleged dangerous condition here and the imminent harm actually suffered by the decedent simply is not there.”

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