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Media Alerts - Lizette Vargas v. City of Philadelphia, et al. - Third Circuit
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April 22, 2015
  Lizette Vargas v. City of Philadelphia, et al. - Third Circuit
Headline: Officers acted reasonably when they blocked a car and ordered the occupants out in response to 911 call but had no initial knowledge the call was about a medical emergency.

Area of Law: Constitutional Law; Unlawful Seizures

Issues Presented: Whether officers responding to a 911 call, unaware initially that the call was regarding a medical emergency, unlawfully seized a mother and daughter in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights?

Brief Summary:
Lizette Vargas called 911 when her 15-year-old daughter, Tabitha, suffered a severe asthma attack. As she called 911, she placed her unconscious daughter in the backseat of a cousin's vehicle. When the officers responded to the call, they stopped the vehicle from moving, unaware of the medical emergency, and ordered Vargas and the driver out of the car. After seeing Tabitha and hearing ambulance sirens, the officers instructed Vargas to wait until paramedics arrived. The paramedics rushed Tabitha to the hospital, but she ultimately died from an anoxic brain injury. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's grant of summary judgment, holding that any seizure was reasonable because the officers were initially unaware of the medical emergency.

Extended Summary:
Lizette Vargas appealed the District Court's grant of summary judgment to the City on her constitutional and state-law claims of unlawful seizure, violation of her right to make decisions about the medical care of her daughter, and false imprisonment.
On August 19, 2009, Vargas called 911 after her 15-year-old daughter, Tabitha, began suffering from an asthma attack. Vargas and a relative both dialed 911, placing five separate, frantic calls within a few minutes. In response to a report of "a person screaming," the Police Communications Center dispatched police officers Keith White and Matthew Blaszczyk but neither officer was made aware that the call was regarding a medical emergency.

Vargas testified that Tabitha was in the backseat of her cousin's car while Vargas was in the front passenger seat. The cousin had pulled the car partly out of its parking spot when the police arrived, blocking the car. As an officer approached, Vargas banged on her door to let the officer know that she could not open her door, while the driver rolled down her window and told the officer that they had Tabitha in the car and had to leave immediately. The officer shouted at the driver to turn the engine off and get out of the car.

Vargas could not open her passenger-side door so she climbed over the center console and got out of the car through the driver-side door. Vargas testified that the police officer then pulled open one of the back doors, causing Tabitha to tumble partway out of the car and onto the ground. Vargas immediately attempted to move towards her daughter but was blocked by one of the officers.

Officers White and Blaszczyk testified that they did not block the when they pulled to a stop in front of the Vargas residence. They also claimed that Tabitha was already on the sidewalk upon their arrival. Officer White then heard the siren of an ambulance coming, so he recommended that they wait for the ambulance to arrive because he could see it coming down Fifth Street. Both officers testified that they did not prevent anyone from taking Tabitha to the hospital. The police dispatch records showed that just over a minute elapsed from the time the officers noted their arrival at the scene to the time the ambulance arrived.

The paramedics gave Tabitha emergency care at the scene and on the way to the hospital but she suffered brain death and died two weeks later on August 26, 2009. Tabitha arrived at the hospital about 20 minutes after the first 911 call.
Vargas sued the officers and the City, asserting that that the officers violated her and Tabitha's Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful seizure and physical restraint and Vargas's right to seek medical care on Tabitha's behalf, in violation of 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Vargas also included claims against the City for failing to properly train the police, and state-law false imprisonment claims on her own behalf and for Tabitha.

The City moved for summary judgment, arguing that Vargas could not demonstrate a constitutional violation and, in the alternative, that the officers' conduct was shielded by qualified immunity. Vargas relied on an expert witness, who said that, had Vargas been able to take Tabitha to the hospital without interruption from the police, Tabitha would have arrived at the hospital 6 to 8 minutes earlier and that the delay prevented Tabitha from receiving life-saving medical care, causing her anoxic brain injury and leading to her death. The District Court granted summary judgment against Vargas on all of her claims, including granting judgment sua sponte on the false imprisonment claims. Vargas then appealed to the Third Circuit

The Third Circuit affirmed, holding that, even if there was a seizure, the undisputed facts showed that the officers' actions were reasonable. The Court found that the "community caretaking doctrine" of Cady v. Dombrowski, applicable where, as here, a person outside of a home was seized for a non-investigatory purpose to protect the community at large. The officers were unaware of the medical emergency, pulled up to a volatile situation with people screaming at them, and, once they realized Tabitha needed medical attention, they reasonably waited for the ambulance whose arrival was imminent. Even if the officers seized Vargas by ordering her out of the car and making her wait for the ambulance, the seizure was reasonable.

Third Circuit also rejected Vargas' argument that the officers violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to make medical decisions for Tabitha. The Court noted that the officers answered a 911 call noted simply as "person screaming," encountered a group of screaming, frantic adults and an unconscious child, and made everyone wait for the ambulance once they realized the nature of the emergency. The facts did not show deliberate indifference or an intent to harm, even if the police used vulgar language on their arrival. The Court also rejected Vargas' claim of that the police department failed to adequately train its police officers and adopt appropriate policies to prevent Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, given no violation of those rights occurred. Finally, the Third Circuit found no error in the sua sponte dismissal of Vargas' false imprisonment claim; because the undisputed facts failed to show the necessary willful misconduct, any error in dismissing sua sponte was harmless.

To read the full opinion, please visit http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/134590p.pdf

Panel (if known): Fisher, Jordan, and Greenaway, Jr., Circuit Judges

Argument Date: January 21, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: April 17, 2015

Docket Number: No. 13-4590

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Joe Mathew

Counsel: James E. Hockenberry, Esq., for the Appellant Lizette Vargas; and Jane L. Istvan, Esq., Mark Maguire, Esq., and Amanda C. Shoffel, Esq., for the Appellees City of Philadelphia, Police Officer Matthew Blaszczyk, Police Officer Keith White, and John Does 1-10

Author of Opinion: Judge Jordan

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 04/22/2015 11:33 AM     3rd Circuit  

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