The family of a deaf woman who died last summer after her deaf husband's calls for help on the city's 911 emergency telephone system went unanswered filed suit Friday against the city, county and state, and against Pacific Bell and its parent company.
The suit, filed by the husband and children of Mary Bell Shufeldt, also names as a defendant the 911 dispatch operator who city officials say failed to recognize the sound of Jay Shufeldt's telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) and hung up on his calls.
The wrongful death suit states that the defendants' alleged negligence in operating the 911 system led to the death of the 72-year-old woman. It seeks unspecified damages to compensate for the loss of her companionship and wages and for expenses incurred by her death.
"Mr. Shufeldt and his children are aware that money will not bring her back," Gregg Relyea, a lawyer for the Shufeldts, said Friday. "They are more interested in seeing the system improve and that it is accessible to deaf people."
Failure for Deaf
Relyea added, "The fact that San Diego's 911 system has shown itself to not be reliable has caused many deaf people to question whether they would use it in an emergency. In effect, what it's done is force them back into a position of extreme reliance on hearing friends and family members to make their telephone calls for them."
Mrs. Shufeldt died July 17 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after collapsing in her San Diego home. Mr. Shufeldt, who is 74, has said he tried at least three times to call 911 for emergency help on his Teletype machine but was unable to get through.
An internal investigation by the San Diego Police Department concluded in August that a 911 operator failed to recognize the signal transmitted by the machine. "She thought that children were playing with the phone" and hung up twice, a police investigator said.
The case, believed to be the first of its kind in which system failure may have resulted in the death of a deaf person, galvanized concern within the deaf community throughout California and elsewhere in the country over the reliability of 911 services for the deaf.
The suit filed Friday comes approximately seven months after Relyea filed wrongful death claims against the city, county and state. All three entities rejected those claims, leaving Relyea free under the law to sue them in Superior Court.
Never Told Supervisor
The suit alleges that Angela Bolin, the dispatch operator, terminated Shufeldt's calls without attempting to connect them to the TDD available for receiving calls from the deaf. It states that she never informed her supervisor of her difficulties in handling the calls.
Furthermore, it charges that after at least two calls from Shufeldt, she dialed his telephone number, which automatically flashed on a computer screen each time he called. The suit alleges that when Shufeldt answered by TDD, Bolin hung up.
(TDDs emit a high-pitched beeping noise into telephones to indicate that the call should be transferred to a telephone equipped with a TDD. TDDs contain keyboards that transmit signals through telephone lines, making communication possible.)
The lawsuit also charges that the defendants failed to follow their own written guidelines and procedures for handling 911 calls from the deaf. It alleges that the dispatch operator was inadequately trained and her failure led to Mrs. Shufeldt's death.
The suit notes that the city's own 1986 phone directory of city offices urges deaf people to use the 911 system in emergencies. Pacific Bell's phone book and brochure also make the same promise of 911 service, the suit states.
"Defendants . . . failed to exercise reasonable care in their administration, operation, supervision and maintenance of the local San Diego 911 emergency telephone systems," the suit states. Those failings "proximately caused or contributed to the death of Mary Bell Shufeldt."
On the evening of Mrs. Shufeldt's death, her husband eventually reached their daughter, who is not deaf. She called 911 and got through. But by the time paramedics arrived at the downtown San Diego home, Mrs. Shufeldt was dead.
Police Capt. George Malloy, who is in charge of communications for the department, has differed with Shufeldt's claim that several hours elapsed between his initial call and the arrival of paramedics. Malloy has said computer records indicate the delay was only 21 minutes.
"Suffice it to say, the operator made a mistake," Malloy said in an interview last year. "But it wasn't a three-hour delay."