County EMS, five others named in lawsuit over Bluffton man's death

December 29, 2009 

The widow of a Bluffton man who suffered a heart attack and died 11 days later has filed a lawsuit alleging that an ambulance's delay at an unmanned security gate in her neighborhood led to her husband's death.

Sarah Smith of Baynard Park filed the negligence and wrongful death lawsuit Dec. 17 on behalf of her late husband, James Smith, 65, who died April 18.

Six defendants are listed in the suit:

• Beaufort County Emergency Medical Services

• Bluffton Township Fire District

• Centex Homes, the Nevada company that developed Baynard Park

• the Baynard Park Property Owners Association

• Omni Management Services and Bundy Appraisal & Management -- two property management companies that have operated in Baynard Park

Sarah Smith seeks unspecified damages against the defendants, whose responses haven't yet been filed at the Beaufort County Clerk of Court's office.

The suit alleges that "had EMS arrived at Mr. Smith's residence in a timely manner, then, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, it could have successfully resuscitated (him) in a prompt fashion" and he wouldn't have died. James Smith's medical records had been reviewed by an expert witness who made that determination, according to court documents.

The suit says the defendants' negligence caused James Smith to experience "conscious pain and suffering, and ultimately an untimely, premature and painful death."

The incident a the center of the suit occurred around 9:25 p.m. on April 7. James Smith apparently was suffering a heart attack when his wife called 911.

An ambulance from Beaufort County EMS arrived at Baynard Park's security gate in about four minutes, but was delayed for two to three minutes because paramedics couldn't open the unmanned gate, according to a report provided by the county in April. Responders arrived at the patient's home nearly nine minutes after leaving the station, according to the county's report. EMS took Smith to Hilton Head Hospital, where he died of irreversible brain damage April 18, his son told the Island Packet in April.

Sarah Smith's suit alleges, among other things, that Beaufort County EMS acted negligently because:

• paramedics and emergency medical technicians didn't know how to operate the unmanned security gate and didn't keep proper records of codes to open it.

• ambulances weren't equipped with an emergency override key that the Bluffton Township Fire District was outfitted with -- or with an override system of any sort.

• it failed "simply to have driven their EMS vehicle around the gate" in order to treat James Smith in a "timely manner."

THE INCIDENT

When firefighters, who routinely go to emergency medical calls, arrive at any unmanned gate first, they use emergency override keys to open the gates for ambulances, fire officials have said.

When Beaufort County EMS arrives first, paramedics must use codes listed in their ambulances because they do not have override keys.

When paramedics arrived at the Baynard Park security gate -- which is only manned from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to the suit -- they entered what they thought was the gate's code. The gate did not open.

Before trying again, they had to wait 45 seconds because the system is set to freeze temporarily after failed attempts, according to the suit.

When they did try again, the gate remained closed.

They were using a code listed in a book carried in their ambulance, according to an April report written by then-county EMS Director Rusty Hollingsworth.

They also tried unsuccessfully to enter an off-duty paramedic's personal residential code to the neighborhood.

About a minute after the ambulance arrived at the gate, a Bluffton Township fire engine rolled up, the county's April report said. It was equipped with a device called a Knox-Box Rapid Entry System -- an override device that opens residential gates for emergency personnel.

But on the call to the Smiths' house, firefighters couldn't get into a security box where the Knox key was kept because of a blown fuse on the fire truck, according to the suit.

Another fire official had driven to Baynard Park in his own vehicle and was able to open the gate because he had another Knox key, the suit says.

The suit alleges, among other things, the Bluffton Township Fire District acted negligently because:

• it failed to properly maintain its engines to prevent blown fuses from causing delays.

• it also failed to treat James Smith in a timely manner.

OTHER ALLEGATIONS

The suit also contends, among other things, that home builder Centex, the Baynard Park POA and property management companies Omni and Bundy Appraisal & Management acted negligently by failing to install a more advanced override system than Knox-Box.

The suit says a more advanced system called Click2Enter -- a system that doesn't require emergency responders to stop their vehicles for activation -- had been installed in nearly all of Hilton Head Island's gated communities since 2004. Baynard Park was developed beginning in 2006, the suit says.

The Beaufort County Council passed a measure in October requiring all new gated communities to have codeless systems, such as Click2Enter, on each gate and gave existing communities 12 months to retrofit their systems at the communities' expense.

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