Five years after Nancy Jane McGhee's death, a settlement has been reached in her family's lawsuit against Pasco County's Department of Emergency Services.
McGhee's family sued Emergency Services for negligence, saying that in March 2007, 911 dispatchers were unable to give McGhee's boyfriend the proper instructions on how to administer emergency treatment required to dislodge a piece of steak that McGhee was choking on. McGhee, 37, choked to death in her Land O' Lakes home.
An agreement in principal was reached in mid-December regarding her choking death and the manner in which her boyfriend's 911 call for help was handled, according to Tom Carey, a Clearwater attorney who represented McGhee's children.
The settlement is for $75,000, according to Anthony Salzano, Pasco County's senior assistant county attorney. The money will go to McGhee's one adult daughter, Crissy Cresong, and three juvenile children, David, Kelly, and Steven Cresong.
The money will be paid from a professional negligence insurance policy. The settlement must be approved by county commissioners.
"It's just a very tragic case," Carey said. "Part of the civil justice system, I've been at it for more than 30 years, is to compensate the victims. The other part is to prevent future occurrences by underlining what's happened. That's our hope; our clients get compensated and this is less likely to happen in the future."
On March 24, 2007, McGhee was inside her Land O' Lakes home with her boyfriend, Chris Cooper, when she began to choke on a piece of steak. When Cooper called 911, Pasco emergency dispatcher Jennie Montanino answered.
Because Montanino was not certified as an emergency medical dispatcher, she was required to have a supervisor assist on the call. On two attempts, no one answered Montanino's request for assistance. An investigation revealed lead communications officer Maureen Thomas refused to assist with the call and finally, about six minutes later, shift supervisor David Cook took over the call. An internal investigation by former Emergency Services Director Anthony Lopinto revealed that Cook did not provide the prescribed instructions emergency medical dispatchers are supposed to give.
Cook then abruptly left the call in frustration due to Cooper's frantic state.
The attempts at dislodging the steak did not work and after paramedics arrived, about 12 minutes later, McGhee was dead.
When word spread at the 911 call center that McGhee had died, Cook was heard joking: "She must have bit off more than she could chew," according to an investigation of the incident.
Cook took an early retirement a day after the incident. Thomas resigned three weeks later, rather than be fired for willful neglect.
"I have never in my 30 years had somebody who had an obligation to act in a life-threatening situation and turned their back," Lopinto said shortly after the incident. "I can't come up with a reason or reconcile it in my own mind why it happened."
Montanino, who had been at the center for a year at the time of Cooper's call, has continued her career with the county.
According to court records, attorneys representing Pasco County believed several factors contributed to McGhee's death. One of which was the implied indecisiveness of Cooper. Once paramedics arrived, Cooper was asked what took place, and he provided several stories. He initially said he came out of the shower and saw McGhee choking. He helped her to the floor where he tried to clear her airway by hitting her on the back and reaching into her mouth in an attempt to dislodge the steak.
Another time Cooper said he came out of the shower and she was already on the floor struggling to breathe. He told another paramedic he was in the kitchen when she began to choke and eventually passed out.
Cooper later changed his story, saying he came out of the bathroom to find McGhee lying on the floor and she had already turned blue. He said he attempted to help McGhee for two to four minutes before calling 911.
Lawyers for the county also submitted evidence that McGhee's sobriety played a part in her death. According to court documents, McGhee's blood alcohol content was measured at more than .321. The state of Florida deems a person impaired after registering a BAC of .08.
The lawsuit was originally carried forward by McGhee's mother, Martha Callahan of Lake Placid. She died May 2012 at 74.
The event served as impetus to change several of the emergency call center's policies. In Pasco County, employees must be EMD trained before taking 911 calls, which is 24 hours of training. Additionally, the state requires employees to undergo 232 hours of training before they can take 911 calls.
At the time of Cooper's call, dispatchers did not have to be EMD certified. Pasco County's 911 Operations Manager Jody Kenyon said the past policy was a byproduct of being short staffed and attempting to bring those levels up.
"It makes it a much better situation," Kenyon said of the changes. "People we hire, once they've completed their training, are able to take 911 calls without additional supervision or assistance whatsoever. They can carry on if it's an emergency medical dispatch and not have to wait for somebody to assist them if a call of that nature comes in."